Hotel branding has entered the Age of Doubt with the growth of soft brands from such legacy names as Marriott, Hilton, and Choice.

Marriott has its Autograph Collection, Hilton just debuted the Curio Collection, and Choice has Ascend, its collection of “historic, boutique and unique” hotels.

Buzz worthy monikers, yes, but they also raise questions. Do these soft brands dilute their parent companies? Do they signal that the legacy brands no longer count as much as they used to?

Do these private-label, boutique-style properties enhance their graying forebears or do they cannibalize them? Are websites brands? Are collections brands like Leading Hotels of the World or Preferred Hotels? These questions matter more and more as traveler demographics change.

Legacy brands with standards mandating cookie-cutter lodging want to differentiate, creating extensions that trade on the aura of boutiques and independent hotels. They hope they have learned the lesson of “not your father’s Oldsmobile.” They know they can’t repeat the same old story.

They may be too late.

Different demographics choose hotels for different reasons. The trick is to make your property stand out no matter the flag, and being branded may not be the ticket. Does anybody care that Wyndham Worldwide owns RCI? You buy a timeshare according to its reputation, not its affiliation.

The trend doesn’t seem to favor brands.

Gens X, Y, and Millennial travelers are used to choosing a property based on social media, not just its website. The reviews and commentaries the hotel stimulates are at least as important. These are people who think online. They look at pictures on computer screens, on tablets, and on smartphones. And if they like what they see, they’re likely to choose it no matter its name.

The property and its online reputation – transparent via any kind of technology device – count more than brand to them.

It’s true that big brands still wield power for baby boomers and loyalty program members who crave a sense of the familiar no matter where they go. Their soft extensions bring those to the table, too, so broadening the identification – as in The Metropolitan at The 9, a new hotel going up in downtown Cleveland that is part of Marriott’s Autograph collection – can help. Theoretically.

And soft brands – if only because they’re new – don’t carry the image burden of their sponsors, the brands that give them their sales and marketing clout, including powerful res systems. Besides, hooking up with the likes of Marriott, Hilton and Choice brings the purchasing power of a huge network.

Soft brands allow properties to stress their local, independent flavor, gaining international exposure while still having the benefits of braHotel Brandingnd affiliation. Kind of makes you wonder why you would join a legacy brand if becoming part of a soft brand collection brings you the same advantages.

Names have power; so do signage and a logo. But the modern traveler cares more about hotel reviews and pictures and experience and personal impressions. If you’re an international business traveler who stays in a disappointing luxury hotel in Los Angeles, you’re not likely to pick a hotel of the same brand in New York City or Bombay. And you’re likely to post your feelings about it on traveler websites.

So, if the Internet has made brands less important to the traveler, and there are other ways to capitalize on loyalty programs than brand affiliation, what’s the draw for the traveler?

As for hoteliers, the biggest reason to join a brand is buying power, marketing and sales; you still want a reservation system that generates maximum ROI and you still want to get the best price on your toilet paper and your shampoo. But there’s a deal in the works that is designed to provide the same kind of clout to independent hotels. If and when that goes through, the purchasing power argument that brands make today will go away.
We’re starting to see branded hotels getting less and less revenue from the mothership, suggesting the growth in soft brands is diluting the brands themselves. Perhaps the brands are so afraid of losing market share that they are creating these soft brands in order to compete.

All of which leaves true independents – and collections of independents – an increasingly clear competitive field. Not to mention the individuality, the boutique sensibility, a worldwide network and universal appeal that they offer.

IBC Hotels founder and president Pamela J.W. Barnhill also serves as president and COO of InnSuites Hospitality Trust and is a board member of the Independent Lodging Industry Association. Ms. Barnhill advocates for, owns, and operates independent hotels. For more information, visit ibchotels.com or contact Ms. Barnhill at pbarnhill@ibchotels.com.