Ownership of the Hilton Hotel brand had been split apart in 1964. As a result, the hotel chain was controlled by two distinct groups—Hilton Hotel Corporation (HHC), which held the rights to the brand in the United States, and Hilton International Company (HIC, a division of the Ladbroke Group PLC), which owned the brand abroad. Since their breakup, HHC and HIC had maintained separate marketing and public relations efforts. In 1997, however, facing intense competition in both domestic and international markets, the two companies formed the Hilton Alliance, which was committed to creating a single global image for the hotel chain. After changing the Hilton logo, the companies selected advertising agency Bozell Worldwide to produce a branding campaign that would differentiate Hilton from its competitors. The company wanted a unique message to position itself advantageously among the other massive global hotel chains competing for the patronage of business and leisure consumers. The result was the ‘‘It Happens at the Hilton’’ campaign, which debuted on October 5, 1998, and used photographs of celebrities and everyday travelers to ‘‘convey the strength of the Hilton name and its association with quality, achievement, innovation, and timeless style,’’ said Robert Dirks, the senior vice president of marketing for HHC.
Hilton allocated a budget of approximately $10 million for the first three months of the campaign, which was comprised mainly of print ads. ‘‘It Happens at the Hilton’’ sought to epitomize the Hilton experience for its audience. Unlike traditional advertising for major hotel chains, which typically focused on the nuts and bolts of the visiting experience—mainly rooms or services—
Hilton’s campaign used striking photos of past and present celebrities at various Hilton hotels. One spot featured ex-Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono during their ‘‘Bed-in for Peace’’ at the Amsterdam Hilton. Political figures Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, as well as celebrities Larry King and Naomi Campbell, also appeared in ads bearing the ‘‘It Happens at the Hilton’’ tag line. To ensure that consumers were not alienated by a celebrity-laden campaign, however, Hilton also ran a substantial number of ads that portrayed average Hilton guests, ranging from CEOs and other business people to families on vacation. One print piece, for instance, depicted a family at a Hilton pool. ‘‘Relaxation now available in a convenient family size,’’ the copy chirped. The company’s goal was straightforward. ‘‘We want to show that so many things happen at the Hilton, from weddings to romance, and that Hilton is part of the community,’’ Dirks told Advertising Age International. Hilton declared itself pleased with the campaign’s result.