Macau gaming operators have built world-class casino resorts with now famous names. Building world-class brands is a different challenge, and the jury is still out on their success.
“Do not confuse brand with property name or company name,” warns Andrew Klebanow, principal at Gaming Market Advisors LLC, a U.S.-based casino consultancy firm.
“A brand must offer a consistent brand promise. It must also offer a clear image in the customer’s mind,” he says.
Branding matters more as each Macau operator builds new casino resorts in Cotai, gaming revenue growth shifts from VIP to mass market play, and more jurisdictions aim to compete with Macau for Asia’s burgeoning leisure travel market.
Macau operators are also eyeing Japan, if and when it legalises casinos, and other emerging Asian markets from Taiwan to Sri Lanka. It is possible they will try to take with them some of the brands already in use in Macau. Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd recently announced plans to extend its City of Dreams brand to the Philippines.
Brands do not just matter to guests. A strong brand can make a company more attractive to licensing authorities, whether government officials are seeking a reliable partner to reassure constituents that casinos will be well run and successful, or they need to establish credibility through association with a big name.
Investors also look to brands for a track record of performance, value creation and growth potential.
Among experts, just as among players, different Macau brands have their fans. Branding pundits agree that the city has world-class brands in gaming, including some created here. But they disagree on which are the winning brands.
What makes a brand successful is fairly clear-cut. “That’s ‘Marketing 101’: set your promise; deliver that promise,” says Ben Lee, managing partner at Macau-based gaming consultancy IGamiX Management and Consulting Ltd.
Mr Klebanow says: “A good brand strategy allows the casino developer to immediately own a unique place in the consumer’s mind. When Wynn Resorts Ltd proposes a casino in a new jurisdiction, anyone with any experience of a Wynn casino-hotel can instantly picture what the resort would look like.”
He praises Wynn Resorts for brand extensions and products synergies that reflect its brand promise.
“The key here is to be very clearly known for something, whether that is a certain standard of business, a particular expertise in entertainment, dining, or certain form of gaming,” says Ben Cavender, associate principal at China Market Research Group, a strategic market intelligence firm headquartered in Shanghai.
“Tying the brand clearly to multiple events, including non-gaming events, is important so that the brand sticks with people,” says Mr Cavender.
Macau operators are increasingly aggressive with promotions ranging from invited movie stars to combat sports, as well as expanding their regular non-gaming offerings, such as restaurants, clubs, spas and shows. The government has said it will link new live gaming table allocations in Cotai to non-gaming amenities.
“Casino operators must be able to differentiate their experiences based on their core brand values,” says Chris Wieners, managing director at Macau-based marketing firm Hogo Digital Ltd.
“These brand values must offer more than just ‘luxury’ or ‘VIP’ as part of their vocabulary. They must look at every aspect of the customer experience, including across gaming and non-gaming, and develop a branded personality to be delivered at all touch points [with the client],” says Mr Wieners, who was previously director of digital marketing at gaming operator Sands China Ltd.
“Macau properties haven’t yet distinguished themselves by brand. For global chains [such as Sheraton and Four Seasons], this is easier, as the brands themselves are built upon platforms that include access to strong sales, marketing and operations teams. For new Asian-centric brands such as City of Dreams, Altira, Galaxy and the like, the brands will be required to build these core values and, as a result, brand equity, on their own. Not an easy task,” he adds.
Measured against these criteria, Macau’s casino brands succeed in different, though often limited, ways.
“The Venetian Macao has the ‘wow’ factor. It has amazed and captivated the mainland visitor. It’s the one place I take everybody to,” Standard Chartered Bank regional gaming analyst Philip Tulk says of Sands China’s flagship casino resort.
Sands China is a subsidiary of U.S.-based Las Vegas Sands Corp. The parent company also owns a Venetian-branded property in Las Vegas, opened in 1999, ahead of its Macau sister.
“Mention Macau to just about anyone – including those who haven’t been there – and they surely know the Venetian Macao name. This can be credited to a significant investment made into brand development in China and promotion of non-gaming elements across Asia,” Mr Wieners says.
“I believe that while the Venetian and Sands brands have had the most success in driving brand awareness and equity, Sands China has had the hardest time delivering a cohesive brand experience across their properties,” he adds. “Part of this is due to the multitude of brands Sands China has brought into the marketplace and the difficulty of differentiating a ‘Venetian Macao experience’ from a ‘Sands Cotai Central’ one.”
Sands China brands in Cotai also include its Plaza property adjacent to Venetian, Paiza for its own VIP operations and The Parisian, the name for its next Cotai casino resort. On the peninsula, it owns casino-hotel Sands Macao.
The gaming operator also had a plan to trademark several brands using the words “Cotai” or “Cotai Strip” as part of its marketing strategy for Macau. Rival casino company Melco Crown has successfully challenged the plan in court.
“[Sands] is not a brand that offers lots of synergies,” Mr Klebanow says. “Las Vegas Sands, owner of some of the most successful casino resorts in the world, is a company name, not a brand.”
On the other hand, the Wynn brand succeeds as a corporate and a brand name. “When you think of Wynn, you think of [Wynn Resorts founder and chairman] Steve Wynn [and] premium [quality] in everything,” Mr Tulk says.
“Wynn Resorts has done an excellent job of promoting their brand across multiple properties, including those in Macau,” operated by subsidiary Wynn Macau Ltd, Mr Wieners says. “The brand has successfully created an experience that has been copied across their existing properties.”
The MGM brand, owned by U.S.-based MGM Resorts International, is another successful case, says Mr Klebanow. “MGM, with its expansion into the non-gaming hotels, also connotes a sense of luxury.”
In Macau, the company owns casino-hotel MGM Macau, managed by subsidiary MGM China Holdings Ltd, a partnership with businesswoman Pansy Ho Chiu King.
The real power of the brand in Asia was however most evident far from Macau, Mr Klebanow notes, when the parent company signed an agreement to operate an MGM-branded resort in southern Vietnam’s Ho Tram area.
“What investor thought about a destination casino resort at Ho Tram until MGM decided to lend its brand to the development? With MGM on board, Ho Tram immediately became a credible development,” Mr Klebanow says.
MGM eventually pulled out of the project in 2013 when the property failed to meet its March opening deadline. The development opened in July under its own brand, The Grand – Ho Tram Strip.
Macau’s home grown brands also rate well with some experts. “City of Dreams is delivering entertainment that U.S. operators couldn’t,” IGamiX’s Mr Lee says. He also praises Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd and its Galaxy Macau casino resort.
“Galaxy Entertainment is delivering what the market wants, rather than trying to educate the market.”
“I am a fan of Galaxy,” Mr Klebanow declares. “Galaxy Entertainment did an excellent job of creating a unique service culture, a unique vacation experience and a great brand promise.”
He praises Galaxy Macau’s ‘World Class, Asian Heart’ theme. “I know, after one stay at Galaxy, what the Galaxy brand means, and I understand what ‘Asian Heart’ means. I can sense what the brand is about.” He believes the Galaxy brand can succeed in other markets, too.
The first home grown Macau casino brand belongs to SJM Holdings Ltd. “For over 40 years customers have associated the Lisboa brand with Macau tourism and entertainment,” says chief executive Ambrose So Shu Fai. SJM Holdings owns both the Grand Lisboa and the Hotel Lisboa casino-hotels.
He says even the gaming operator’s name is appealing to customers. “SJM is a key brand for us, as is Lisboa.”
However, the gaming operator is undecided about using either name on its Cotai casino resort, which will include Asia’s first Palazzo Versace hotel.
“If there is any sort of romanticism about what Macau is and what Macau gambling is, Lisboa should embody that,” Mr Tulk says. “It evokes Macau’s history, [company founder and chairman] Stanley Ho Hung Sun, the old Macau. Nobody else has that.”
Sands China and parent Las Vegas Sands, as well as Wynn Macau, MGM China and Galaxy Entertainment did not respond to questions from Macau Business for this article