How the F**k Do You Build a Consistent Global Brand w/ YOTEL’s Olivia Donnan

March 20, 2024

In this super fun, super insightful interview (which we did on a yacht!?), we sat down with Olivia Donnan, VP of Branding Communications at YOTEL, to dive into her career journey and philosophies about how to stand out and build a world-class global brand in hospitality.

From her early dreams of becoming an actress to navigating the multicultural nuances of international business, Olivia shares the lessons, challenges, and wins that have shaped her path. Like many of our guests on “How the F**k Did You Get That Job?”, Olivia’s education and career path are completely unrelated, and she gives practical advice for those starting out in their career and anxious make their mark early (hint: be patient!).

One of our favorite parts of this interview as the candid look at what it takes to build and maintain a strong brand in the uber competitive world of hospitality, and how to maintain that brand’s consistency across continents. A great lesson for any budding global marketing executive.


Olivia's career journey spans from a boutique PR agency to in-house roles at major hotel brands like Starwood and Marriott, leading to her current position at YOTEL.

Working across London and New York offices, Olivia learned to navigate these different cultural landscapes and tailor her approach to different markets.

As VP of Brand and Communications, Olivia oversees all aspects of YOTEL's brand identity, aiming to create a distinct and resonant image that fosters customer loyalty.

Aligning external branding with internal culture is crucial in hospitality; YOTEL invests heavily in employee training and engagement to ensure staff embody the brand values.

For those starting out in marketing or PR, Olivia advises staying open to opportunities, stepping outside one's comfort zone, gaining agency experience, and never stopping learning in an ever-evolving industry.

Q: Olivia, can you walk us through your career journey and how you ended up in your current role as VP of Branding Communications at YOTEL?

A: My path to this role has been quite an adventure! I studied history and archeology at university, which, while fascinating, didn't directly correlate to my current field. But a friend of mine was working at a small boutique PR agency and convinced them to hire me. I have a lot to thank her for, as that first job truly set the trajectory for my career.

In my very first week, I attended a meeting with Marriott where I had this lightbulb moment. Sitting in that room, listening to people discuss hotel brands, storytelling, and press, I realized that there were people who had entire careers dedicated to working with hotels. As someone who grew up in a big family where hotel stays were a rarity and a luxury, I was instantly fascinated. I knew I had found my niche.

From there, I transitioned to an in-house PR role with Starwood Hotels in London, which gave me invaluable experience working directly with a major hospitality brand. I then moved to Marriott International, overseeing PR for Europe. This role expanded my horizons, challenging me to navigate the distinct media landscapes and cultures across different European countries.

A pivotal moment came when I moved to New York City for a role on Marriott's entertainment marketing team. It was a hybrid position, encompassing traditional marketing, PR, events, and experiential marketing. Taking that leap to a new city and a new role really pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to develop a more versatile skill set.

When the opportunity at YOTEL came up, I was excited by the prospect of working with a brand that was in a phase of growth and change. The role also allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the business side of things in a more entrepreneurial setting. It felt like the perfect next step in my career journey.

Q: Let's rewind a bit. Growing up, what did you dream of becoming?

A: Like many young girls, I had dreams of becoming an actress. I was particularly enamored with Jennifer Aniston's character Rachel from Friends. I thought it would be the most amazing life - living in New York, working at a place like Ralph Lauren, navigating the ups and downs of your career and friendships. Of course, I later realized that the reality of an actor's life is quite different from the glossy sitcom version!

For a while, I also toyed with the idea of following in my father's footsteps and becoming a doctor. However, it quickly became apparent that I did not have the aptitude for science that such a career would require. Let's just say, my strengths lie elsewhere!

Q: Having worked in both London and New York, what were the biggest differences you noticed between the two professional environments?

A: The contrast was quite stark. In the London office, my colleagues were a diverse mix of nationalities - British, French, Italian, Russian, Polish, and more. Navigating that multicultural environment required a great deal of adaptability. You had to learn to tailor your working style to effectively collaborate with people who had very different cultural approaches and expectations.

When I moved to New York, I found myself in an office where nearly everyone was American. Suddenly, I was the odd one out - the "foreigner" as I was often jokingly called. It was an adjustment, but it also gave me a valuable outsider's perspective.

From a business standpoint, understanding these cultural nuances is absolutely crucial, especially in the hospitality industry. A prime example is the difference in attitudes towards loyalty programs and credit card points. Americans are incredibly focused on maximizing their points and rewards, whereas Europeans generally don't have that same mindset. Recognizing and catering to these differences can have a significant impact when your goal is to drive direct bookings and foster brand loyalty.

Q: In your current role as VP of Brand and Communications at YOTEL, what exactly falls under your purview?

As VP of Brand and Communications, I'm essentially the guardian of the YOTEL brand. I oversee all aspects of our brand identity, from the logo and website to the tone of voice we use in our communications and even the napkins in our restaurants. Every touchpoint a guest has with our brand falls under my team's responsibility.

The overarching goal is to create a distinct and memorable brand identity that resonates with our target audience. We want to foster a connection with our guests that goes beyond just the practical aspects of their stay. The aim is to create a brand that people actively seek out and prefer, not just because of price or location, but because they feel an affinity with our values and style.

In today's competitive landscape, especially in the lifestyle hotel sector, having a strong, differentiated brand is more important than ever. It's what allows us to stand out, to create an emotional connection with our guests, and to inspire the kind of loyalty that drives direct bookings and repeat visits.

Q: Branding is as much about the internal culture as it is about the external image. How do you ensure that YOTEL employees embody and live the brand?

You've hit on one of the biggest challenges in the hospitality industry. No matter how much effort we put into crafting our external brand image, the guest experience is largely dependent on their interactions with our staff. If there's a disconnect between the brand we're projecting and the reality of the service and atmosphere in our hotels, it undermines all of our other efforts.

To address this, we put a huge emphasis on company culture and employee training. From the moment someone joins the YOTEL team, whether in headquarters or housekeeping, we immerse them in our brand values and ethos. YOTEL was founded on the idea of challenging the status quo in hospitality, and we want every employee to understand and embody that spirit of innovation and guest-centricity.

We invest significantly in training programs, not just on the practical aspects of each role, but on the softer skills of customer service and brand ambassadorship. The goal is to make every employee feel invested in and proud of the YOTEL brand. We've found that when staff genuinely enjoy their work and feel valued, it naturally translates into warmer, more authentic guest interactions.

It's an ongoing effort, but we believe it's absolutely essential. The most successful hotel brands are those where the external image and the internal culture are in perfect alignment.

Q: For young people looking to break into the marketing or PR field, what advice would you offer?

The first thing I would say is don't put too much pressure on yourself to have it all figured out right away. Your career is a journey, and it's okay to take detours and explore different paths. The most important thing is to stay open to opportunities and be willing to step outside your comfort zone.

In my experience, some of the best career moves I've made were the ones that initially scared me the most. When you're offered a chance to take on a new challenge or responsibility, even if you don't feel 100% ready, say yes. You'll be surprised at how much you're capable of when you're pushed to rise to the occasion. It's through these stretches that we grow the most, both professionally and personally.

For those specifically interested in PR, I can't stress enough the value of getting agency experience early on in your career. Working at an agency is demanding, no doubt about it. You'll work long hours, juggle multiple clients, and face your fair share of rejections from journalists. But you'll also develop an invaluable set of skills - how to craft a compelling story, how to build relationships with media, how to think on your feet and persevere in the face of "no."

These are skills that will serve you well throughout your career, whether you choose to stay in agency life or transition to an in-house role later on. Plus, agencies are a great place to get exposure to a wide variety of industries and types of work, which can help you hone in on your areas of interest and strength.

Above all, stay curious, stay humble, and never stop learning. The marketing and PR landscape is always evolving, and the most successful professionals are those who are constantly seeking out new knowledge and skills. Don't be afraid to ask questions, seek out mentors, and take on projects that push you to grow. With hard work, resilience, and a willingness to embrace the journey, you can build a rewarding career in this field.

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