I shuddered beneath the jaundiced third avenue streetlamp, preferring to give the panhandler a “sorry, man” over one of my few dollars. I had just enough for a doughnut and a coffee. In front of the counter, there was room for about five people to stand. A small, hairy man sat perched on a lofted platform so close to the ceiling that he had to slouch over his droning, electronic organ. At one in the morning, Voodoo Doughnuts had only been open for a few hours, and was admitting the first wave of wayward souls.
The knowledge of these authentic, hole-in-the-wall, local haunts has become almost like currency among young people. With consumers being less loyal to brands and more interested in unique, reputable experiences, brands are obviously having a tough time holding onto customers.
But how can one create a brand that facilitates the culture of eschewing consistency for authenticity? Starwood Hotels’ newest hotel brand caters to luxury-seeking millenials, whose idea of hell is staying in a motel or eating at a chain restaurant. Tribute Portfolio, which was unveiled several weeks ago, seeks to brand the anti-brand. By seeking out privately owned properties, from boutique hotels to large resorts, and integrating them into their portfolio, Starwood will offer a diverse, unpredictable array of accommodations. Most importantly, these properties will maintain their façade of independence, paying Starwood a fee to benefit from their guest loyalty and marketing programs.
So how does one name a brand whose purpose is to not be perceived as a brand? Tribute, right off the bat, sort of feels like a grounder to the shortstop. It doesn’t say much, but, isn’t that exactly the point? Starwood is not the artist, but the curator, showing admiration for those who have cultivated a certain level of hip luxury by assimilating them to the Portfolio. That word, Portfolio, is really the name’s only hint at luxury. I would argue that it’s actually more evocative than Tribute, suggesting creativity as well as maturity. However, these days, Portfolio is used so widely as a descriptor that it can hardly be considered a name on its own, leaving Tribute to fall pretty flat. I think there were more interesting ways to suggest partnership, admiration, and authenticity, but I’m open to the idea of a brand name that purposefully flies under the radar, letting a more interesting brand take center stage. In that sense, Tribute succeeds as a descriptive name.
Back in the day, Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts was open from ten at night to ten in the morning, and people didn’t go there because the doughnuts were good. People went there because it was the type of place you had to know about, that gave you that unmistakable feeling that you were part of something truly authentic. After TripAdvisor, Yelp, et al. uncovered this true Portland experience, Voodoo expanded to take up the better part of the block. Tourists take selfies with pink boxes while rush hour traffic trudges across the bridge. And while I and other curmudgeonly Portland purists are quick to dismiss the new shop as an insult to the original, grungy haunt, the line for doughnuts stretches around the block. I can resent their discovery and meteoric success, but the truth is that they had catered to a forsaken ethos, and for that, they deserved to be paid tribute. Authentic, independent businesses are somebody’s livelihood and they should ride that meteor as high as it will fly.