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CitizenM: bad basics are not funny

Gary - 29 th November 2022

I stayed in one of those funky Japanese style, piled high with tech and grooviness hotels in London a couple of weeks ago. Tiny room, ‘brilliantly designed’. So it said.

It was so brilliant that when I went into the room I was surprised to see that the bed was vertical. This, of course, allowed me to get around the teeny weeny room but I was struck by the thought that, unless I worked out the tech to get the bed horizontal, I would be sleeping standing up. I let out a cry of despair, I wished I’d brought my slippers.

This experience was one of many which bring to question the balance of design and practicalities. This tech and design stuff is all very well, but please let me lie on the bed without needing a degree in quantum computing, if such a thing exists. I have trouble enough working the TV nowadays, now I can’t work the bed. What’s the world coming to?

When design and tech overtake the basics of the experience, you know that someone somewhere has deemed that ‘you simply adore the design, to hell with functionality, who needs it darling’. Well, yes, I do appreciate some nice design, but only if I don’t have to sleep standing up.

It seems to me that hotels often get the design-function balance a bit out of whack. I remember staying at a Mal Maison once and it was so dark that I couldn’t see any switches. When I did finally find them, they had been ‘designed into the room’, I couldn’t work out which switch worked which light. What an entertaining evening I had, better than the Blackpool illuminations.

Lighting is one thing but don’t get me started on taps. Are taps so ugly that they have to be hidden? It says something when you need instructions to turn them on. Obviously, people complain or have to call reception. This can’t be right.

Having not stayed in many hotels in the past couple of years I thought that my issue with ‘design before function’ had subsided, even disappeared, but then I went to Glasgow in early October and stayed in a Citizen M. I could tell from the tone of voice in its communications that this was going to be interesting and probably a test of my newly found ‘easy going-ness’.

The name of the hotel was a so called, ‘CitizenM’ and it referred to me as Citizen 240 (my room number). On arrival CitizenM told me I ‘had nice shoes’ (written on the ‘welcome’ mat) that he was ‘keen on the environment and I should turn things off’, that the doors on the lift were an invitation to ‘get together’ and the whole place was littered with little sayings and comments from our mysterious host; CitizenM.

There were other red flags, well, they were to me: it was on the ‘Conde Nast Traveller Hot List’ and it had won numerous design awards including ‘best new hotel of the year award’. Nevertheless, it was good value, and I wanted to try it.

There was no doubting it was modern, immaculately clean, quite stylish in a way. The staff were great, loads of places to work and it was good value. So far so good, but it had to deliver on the other basics of the experience if I was to become a fan and things started to go down hill when I wanted to turn the tele on, iron my shirt, do some work and shut the blinds.

I naturally assumed that the TV remote worked the TV. Of course not, silly me. I had to use the iPad by the side of the bed. There was nothing to tell me this and it took ages for me to work it out. And then, all the news channels were in French or German. I gave up pretty quickly and decided to iron my shirt for the next day. I was speaking at a conference and I wanted to look smart-ish. Off I went to the beautifully named ‘heavenly ironing’ area.

I was quite excited by the prospect of ‘Ironing Heaven’. I thought it must be an ironing oasis full of the best ironing equipment in the world, an ironing paradise with soothing music and paintings to look at but it turned out to be the landing at the end of the corridor, or in other words; the stairwell. To add to that, the iron didn’t work. I had to traipse around the hotel looking for another ‘heavenly ironing area’ carrying my less than groovy shirt.

Half ironed shirt in my hands, I went back to my room to work. I had some serious prep to do but the table was so narrow I couldn’t arrange all my notes and my legs didn’t fit under the table. I gave up again, it was time for bed. I was then faced with more tech to pull the blinds down. This required pressing more switches, which I did, but not necessarily in the right order. There seemed to be some fault, or was it the entertainment, as every time I turned the lights on the blinds went down or up. I was like Mr Bean trying to figure it all out.

In the morning I needed a shower (it was slow…so very slow) and a big breakfast which I was looking forward to as it got a high billing and was not cheap, £15. I was disappointed, less choice than what you get in normal hotel, absolutely nothing special about it and nowt for a Citizen Veggie.

I could have forgiven all these issues but it all seemed much worse because of the tone of voice of the signage and communications in the hotel. I was quite happy to go along with the CitizenM ruse, it’s bit of fun and gave the hotel a personality but when things started to go wrong it made the whole experience feel a lot worse.

I wanted to shout ‘I am not Citizen 240!, I am just a bloke who wants to turn his tele on, iron his shirt, keep the blinds down for a few minutes at least while I get changed, get a shower and something to eat. I’d have enjoyed all the copy entertainment if the basics been delivered. Brands have to earn the right to have fun.

It would be so easy for CitizenM to make these changes and then they would shine in a cluttered market. A core part of what Brand Vista does for businesses is to develop unique and memorable touch points in the customer experience which bring the brand to life and make it stand out, we call them ‘Brand Amplifiers’. Our clients love doing this but I have lost count of the times when in both the customer and colleague walkthroughs we do to research the experience reveal that they really need to get the basics right first. It’s the less sexy and exciting thing to do but it reaps rewards big style and unless that is done, I for one, will not be going back to CitizenM. Which is a shame because I kind of like it’s boldness.

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Gary is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista. With over 20 years of brand experience both on the client and agency side he loves finding out what customers and consumers are really thinking and turning this knowledge into compelling brand propositions that succeed in the real world.
Find out more about Gary