It’s customer experience that shapes perceptions of the brand in a service business, not logos and packaging

BY VICTOR ADAR

Starting out as a photographer in 1980 and with no one to guide him on the path to take, the future wasn’t bright enough. But today James Stuart, 60, who also wanted to become a pilot growing up, slowly rediscovered his true north and passion and is now helping companies position their brands. 

From a perception point of view, photography is not a career but simply an art. In the battle, Mr Stuart studied Sociologyat the University of Bath, UK. He would spend his early career working for advertising agencies in London, a totally different field, before moving to Hong Kong in 1991. 

“My career has been a bit like a gypsy,” he says. “It was interesting time but in the end corporate world didn’t suite me. So my journey has been more about keeping my business life adventurous, and making things unique. I like spreading the word and I like bringing things to life. You can make a reasonable living doing what you like.”

After finding it boring working in the corporate world, he founded his own company, Stuart + Partners in 2001 to gain from the service businesses market. The proverbial journey of a thousand miles started with a team of five people. For the first four years, he says, the company grew quite quickly fetching around $1.8m annually. He mainly worked with airlines, retailers, insurance companies and restaurants. 

Today, he is mainly focusing on the opportunities in the hospitality sector. While his clients include the big boys such as Shangri-La, The Peninsula, Langham, Rosewood and other Asian-based luxury hotel groups, it was with new start-up hotel brands that he found the company’s consulting sweet spot. He has also managed The Upper House in Hong Kong and The Opposite House in Beijing, which are top commercial performers and Number 1 TripAdvisor brands in their respective markets. 

His work took him across much of Greater China and South East Asia, and eventually in 2013 to Nairobi, to work with the Sankara group and subsequently with Latitude Hotels in Zambia and Malawi. In 2017 he embarked on a new project called The Social House in Lavington, Nairobi, a hotel that opened its doors for business in February of 2020.

“I’m proud to have been given a chance to have a significant impact on this brand.  Every single aspect of it has been developed, and are related to values that support its brand from organization concept to landscaping, the art, recruitment… and we will carry on learning and getting better. Let’s make luxury more natural, more fluid,” he says. 

Stuart’s achievements show that there is no such thing as luck, to make it happen, one must develop not only specific goals but also clear plans. Then, cap it all by doing the work in order to get the big dollar. 

He has modelled a “Brand Centred Management” (he calls it BCM) that is helping to position service businesses and talks of an entirely different way of managing businesses and brands. BCM, he says, places the brand positioning at the heart of all organisational purpose, shaping both what is done and the way it’s done to deliver a consistently compelling and authentic experience to the customer. He believes that in a service business, it’s the customer experience that shapes perceptions of the brand, not logos and packaging. 

“If you look at the clients we’ve worked with, 50% of them are market leaders in their own market. Whether they are hotels, mixed use development, luxury resorts, and that covers Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya,” he says. 

Memories of how he was motivated by a director of planning from one advertising group, WWPP, are still fresh in his mind. He quotes him: “You know what! James, you are very lucky. You are in a place where the world is heading. You will see a shift from production to service, and you will see the business model (referring to BCM) needed.” 

Half English, half Irish (he grew up in England but his father was Irish), he argues that clarity of a brand can do wonders. It will attract more customers and perhaps attract more revenues. But what is his experience like thus far? How does Kenya compare as far as ease of doing business is concerned? 

“Setting up a company was easy in Hong Kong. The city is fast and frantic. It is the city of entrepreneurs. Hong Kong has a lot of properties, shopping malls… Here (referring to Nairobi) it is a bit the opposite. We need a little fire. But the good thing is; what was taking place 20, 25 years ago in Hong Kong is happening in Kenya today. Look at the Social House. It works! It really was all about connection, and we want it to be multi-cultural. People who come here are just easy-going, chilled, adventurous people,” he points out.

Stuart is a regular speaker at hospitality conferences, a regular contributor to hospitality journals and regional newspapers and in 2014 published a book that is solely dedicated to hospitality brands: Hotel Brand Bites. 

One of the things he has discovered in terms of promotion is that when you merely attend conferences, it is difficult to meet people and get across a message. It is at the back of this that he discovered sponsoring conferences would make a big difference as you also get a platform to address participants. 

For about six months that the coronavirus has terrorised economies and people in general, try to picture illnesses, deaths, uncertainty and effect on economy, Mr Stuart is seeing a lot of positive things coming out post the pandemic. 

He will carry on with the same business but will shift online, and then, instead of having one client and charge $40, 000, he might opt to sign up a big number of clients, go online, and charge as low as $2, 000 for consultancy. It becomes scalable if done online. It is a game of numbers. 

“I am very proud of having conceived a model that genuinely add value to a business. I want to be on the Forbes top list of entrepreneurs,” he says.    

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