Successful brands have one thing in common. From the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Hawaiian Tropic all the way to Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino’s Casino Metro, the common denominators have been incredible awareness and ownership of “who we are and what we do.”
The key to successful branding lies in predicting and creating profitable trends in noisy, overcrowded industries and markets. This case study will examine how an independent brand rose to success in the Puerto Rican gaming market.
At the outset, Puerto Rico presents a unique set of challenges. Casinos there are not allowed to use mass advertising to promote gaming to Puerto Rican citizens. Nor are they allowed to purchase generic mailing lists or cold-call customers with the intent of selling gaming. Simply put, Puerto Rican citizens must first “opt in” for marketing efforts before you are allowed to communicate to them.
In San Juan alone, there are 11 casinos. While each casino within its respective hotel is “branded,” the brand is rarely referred to when talking about the establishment. Instead, the property’s anchor hotel name is used. This doesn’t mean casinos go unnoticed; San Juan casinos are well-established with mature databases, locations and defined positions in the market. While there’s no harm in the anchor hotel’s name being a reference point, it can diminish the brand of the gaming establishment and may give the impression that the casino is just an amenity instead of the entity that it is. In a competitive locals market relying on loyalty and frequency, customers do not always think in hotel name terms, but rather in terms of local entertainment spots.
The locals market in San Juan is very similar to locals markets in the U.S. Players look for value, convenience, variety, entertainment and rewards for their play. While San Juan casinos always offered comparable products in the above areas, few were consistent in their message, and rarely did they have individual “identities” that would differentiate them from their competitors.
An effort to establish a brand in San Juan is met with familiar preconceived notions:
“No one can beat ‘the top two or three’ casinos.”
“It makes no sense to ‘buy the business.’”
“Direct marketing is expensive, gets no attention and can’t be quantified.”
“Hotel management and casino management rarely work together.”
“That’s how everyone does it here.”
These opinions provide ideal starting points in establishing strategies for this market. The responsibility in this case was to create a new casino brand, develop and produce the product, formulate structured and sustainable pre-opening and post- opening marketing plans, acquire a pre-opening database, then grow the database by 5X and recruit, train and guide the marketing team. (Who are, by the way, the best in Puerto Rico.)
Here’s the story of how an independent casino brand became a thriving casino culture and grabbed its fair share of the San Juan market in its first year of operation. The process followed from concept to year-one anniversary was deliberate and proven.
The executive team was given the task of creating a gaming establishment that was “not just another Puerto Rico casino.” This undertaking encompassed virtually every operational aspect of the casino. In November 2009, we opened Casino Metro, the most technologically advanced casino in the Caribbean. Casino Metro is located in the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino.
When a “new kid” comes to town, there’s great buzz about strategies and intentions. This was no exception. The project was the subject of heavy speculation prior to opening. Robin Powell, the asset manager of the project, had what some thought were “extreme” security measures put in place to keep the product under wraps.
The branding effort started with new promotions, features and innovation not seen in Puerto Rico. Competitors would not have an opportunity to counter the offerings before the casino opened. These were just a few of the unprecedented moves made in the launch of this product.
The foundation of building “not just another Puerto Rico casino” would be the name. From a field of names, “Casino Metro”—submitted by General Manager John Stacy—was chosen because it defined the casino’s association with the Puerto Rico Convention Center, and embraced the fact that the property was located in the heart of San Juan’s convention district—not in a beach resort.
Casino Metro was immediately trademarked in Puerto Rico, and the casinometro.com domain was acquired along with all domain combinations and spellings available.
After selection of the name, Wright Casino Marketing was engaged to aid in brand development. The primary logo icon represents the unique architectural features of the Puerto Rico Convention Center and the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino. The brand colors were generated based on probable impact and application.
The true red and purple colors were selected for a number of reasons. Not only was the color combination very cool; it resonated through the casino’s interior design and custom signage and it translated amazingly on HD video, in print, on textiles and on plastics. When finalizing the suite of logos, all possible applications were considered to ensure quality translation with limited chance of distortion. A palette of primary brights was defined for use in the overall translation of the brand. Additional casino elements were developed.
Sub-brands were established, including Metro Lounge for the casino bar, the M Players Club, and “Metro Play” for free play in the players club (the actual words “free play” are restricted for any marketing campaigns in Puerto Rico).
Brand standards were set when all elements were finalized. This included fonts, pms colors, sizing requirements, multi-media specifications, translation requirements and restrictions. Files were made available for eligible users, including agencies, partners, casino departments, vendors and select media outlets.
The marketing team reached out and got full cooperation from the casino’s Sheraton partners in cross-referencing websites, maintaining casino player room rates, providing casino play to hotel guests and providing offers in our respective food & beverage outlets for the two customer groups. This cooperation was not limited to the Sheraton group; it also included partner entities Zen Spa Retreat, Travel Traders Gift Shops and USA Parking.
Specialty ads and HD videos were created promoting the casino’s partners on all in-house signage and direct marketing pieces. It was important to partner with these strong brands, the goal being to create a brand that would stand alongside theirs, one with which they’d be eager to collaborate. The result was an appealing, value-driven property with consistent messaging and a cohesive set of employees that “got” each other’s products.
For obvious reasons, this article will not divulge exactly how the goals were accomplished, but will outline some accomplishments in year one of operations during a recession in a mature market, with 11 casinos in a seven-mile radius—using no mass advertising.
The campaign was devised with clear rules that fell within advertising restrictions for customer name acquisition. A “Name the Players Club” contest was held eight months prior to opening. The initial group of entrants received branded “Refer-a-Friend” direct-mail pieces to acquire additional names for the pre-opening database.
The pre-opening database received “Watch for your VIP invitation” postcards 30 days prior to opening. The same list received fully branded “VIP Grand Opening” personalized invitations containing cash offers with their actual players club cards. (All direct mail campaigns were compiled and produced in Spanish.)
Casino Metro opened as a fully branded property:
• Video content on over 90 property-wide HD video screens and over 400 Bally iVIEW slot machine screens utilizing “CoolSign” technology
• Branded collateral: in-room offers, property and promotional brochures, logo merchandise (caps, T-shirts, eco-totes, fanny packs)
• Branded casino equipment: cards, chips, pens, uniforms, custom table felts, custom roulette wheels, chairs, ticket kiosks.
Players Club/Direct Marketing
The casino enrolled 10,000 players club members in the first 45 days of operation, through fully staffed and well-educated players club representatives, temporary players club stations for first month of operation, and aggressive new enrollment offers.
Other direct marketing:
• First direct mail piece mailed to database within 19 days after opening
• Second piece mailed within 30 days after opening
• First fully tiered direct mail piece mailed within 60 days of opening.
Direct mail pieces contained property partner offers (hotel, spa, restaurants), aggressive play-based, refer-a-friend and personalized birthday offers and branded monthly promotions. (Play-based and refer-a-friend offers were always in the form of Metro Play.)
Direct-mail response rates at opening were 6 percent. After 30 days, response rates were 10 percent; after 60 days, 19 percent; after 120 days, 29 percent; and after 180 days, 33 percent.
Casino Metro hit the market in November 2009; by January 2010 it had captured 5 percent of the San Juan market. While opening with its share of challenges, the team fine-tuned processes, adjusted and modified programs as needed and continued training in all areas. Ninety days into operation, the product was reviewed, both formally and informally, by surveying customers, employees, partners and vendors.
By October 2010, Casino Metro was consistently performing with over 10 percent market share, over 30 percent direct marketing response rates, 65 percent carded utilization and a database six times larger than month one.
The Casino Metro brand was more than a great logo and clever product placement. In less than a year, it became a culture respected in the market with strong campaigns, loyal customers and a successful, dedicated team.
There are trained dancers who serve guests and deal table games. Visit Casino Metro on a Friday night and you see employees break into choreographed routines—and what’s more, guests often join them. On busy weekends and holidays, directors of finance and human resources are on the floor helping out.
Casino Metro employees receive promotional products before they’re available on the floor, and every Casino Metro employee and quite a few Sheraton employees can walk players through the PIN process to download Metro Play on slot machines.
Casino Metro has never been afraid to state the obvious: San Juan has a new kid in town. Employees take ownership of “who we are and what we do”—and a year later, they are stronger than ever