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FutureNow Article
Tuesday, May. 27, 2008

I’m Not Illiterate, But I Did Stay at a Holiday Inn Express

By Holly Buchanan
May 27th, 2008

holiday inn express stay smartYou’ve probably seen the commercials: Nuclear meltdowns, pro sports athletic training, rodeo clowns, daredevil motorcycle riders — all sorts of people are smarter and more prepared for life because of their choice of hotel.

“Are you new to the team?” asks the nuclear engineer of the stranger who saves a frazzled control room from reactor meltdown.

“Actually, I’m with the tour group, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Holiday Inn Express has a brand promise: “Stay Smart.” Well, I had the opposite experience. Why? Blame it on their poorly named “Simply Smart” bathroom products.

It’s early in the morning — very early — and I’m looking for the hotel shampoo and conditioner. Not too difficult. Just look for the bottle marked “Shampoo” and the one marked “Conditioner”, right?

But I find no such thing. My choices include “Refresh”, “Scrub”, “Wash”, “Soften”, and “Tame”. I reckon that “Tame” is the conditioner, but as to which one was the shampoo, it’s a toss up, so I bring all the bottles into the shower with me. I then compound the situation by not brining my glasses, so now I can hardly read the labels.

Where was the helpful cut-out in the bathroom explaining what each “simple” bottle was? It wasn’t until later that I noticed tiny print on the back of the bottles explaining what each thing really was.

So, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but did I feel like I could fix a multi-million dollar athlete’s sprained ankle or prevent a nuclear meltdown? Not exactly. I had shampoo on my legs, hair conditioner on my face, and mouthwash in my hair. I didn’t feel capable of pouring a cup of coffee. (Though I must say, their hot breakfast bar really is impressive.)

In hindsight, once I knew what each container was, it made a little more sense. (Though how you get Spot & Stain remover from “Rub”, I still don’t know) but surely I’m not their only guest who was confused.

Nothing against Holiday Inn Express. I stay there often and the staff is usually lovely. But this bath product labeling thing really threw me.

So, what’s the lesson here (other than mouthwash should never be used as shampoo and vice versa)?

Beware of cute and clever labels. I see this on websites as well. There’s no glory in being clever if you end up confusing your visitors.

I also see this in advertising messages. I read about an effort in Australia to pull over drunk drivers. The original message was “Don’t blow your license.” Testing showed this message had near 100% understanding. But the ad agency wanted to change it to “Don’t blow it.” Clever, yes, but only 5% of the people had a clear understanding of their message. Some people even thought they were promoting civil disobedience by saying “Don’t take the breathalyser test.”

Back to websites. I know sometimes you want to show your visitors how creative you are. But do you really look at your site from their point of view? I am often befuddled by advertising agency sites. Leo Burnette has an interesting category called “We’re Idea Centric.” The sub categories are “Start Clean,” “Stay Restless,” and “Amplify.” I honestly don’t know what any of those mean or what I would see if I clicked on them.

I’m sure you’ve run into this yourself. I’d love to hear your examples of websites that had labels or navigational elements that were “clever” but not easily understood.

Well, off to getting the furniture polish out of my hair (another story for a later date).

. .

About the Author: Holly Buchanan is a Persuasion Architect at FutureNow and co-author of The Soccer Mom Myth: Today’s Female Consumer: Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys. If you’d like to meet Holly and judge her in person, join her on June 2nd for FutureNow’s Persuasive Online Copywriting seminar in Manhattan. Not only will you learn techniques for attracting customers online, you’ll get a chance to schmooze over hors d’oeurves and cocktails at our “Happy Hour with the Experts” reception, which we hope you’ll find to be appropriately named even though it will last for more than an hour.

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Comments (38)

  1. Once you start optimizing web sites, isn’t it really hard not to look at *everything* through that lens?

    I was telling someone at Home Depot the other day why the “user interface” to their self-checkout machines really sucks…

  2. Hi Holly,
    Your articles never fail to make me smile :)
    But seriously, I agree with you. In our efforts of being creative & trying to deliver on the product, we get so close to the concept that we are in danger of losing the client’s perspective.

    I’ll cite a recent case we encountered. I work as a product & online marketing manager for a leading Indian website. In our product description on the site, we have mentioned the years of experience relative to the product we sell. A client feedback (albeit a one-off case) was that he misunderstood the years of experience as that of the executive who would serve him after the purchase.
    I have to admit, this interpretation did not occur to us once in our 5 yrs. of exp. with the product!

  3. Great – humorous – article.

    Thank you for the reminder – as a writer (health copywriter)I’m tempted by years of vocab. building and Monty Python episodes to grab someone with that new, eyeball-latching twist. As you remind us, shopping and marketing still has to meet some basic principles of practicality. 9 times out of 10 our customers are task-oriented and just want it done, enough web-browsing and price comparison. (Keep it Simple Stupid)K.I.S.S. still holds true.

  4. “I know sometimes you want to show your visitors how creative you are. But do you really look at your site from their point of view? I am often befuddled by advertising agency sites.” This couldn’t be more true. These are the same advertising agencies who win tons of awards at the banquets each year. Yet, their sites don’t rank for any relevant keywords and they don’t convert visitors into customers.

  5. I find that all these creative types in trying to be different really only end up looking the same. They all use some sort of “clever” jargon that doesn’t really make much sense of you think about it. Silly words like AMPLIFY etc just sound silly.

  6. HI Holly
    It is Soccer.
    Not the Football’s game.

  7. In reference to the SimplySmart hair products, I came across
    some from a previous stay and packed to take on an overnight trip rather than my large bottles. I was amazed how much I liked the products. Does anyone know where the
    SimplySmart line is sold or is it exclusively for Holiday Inn Express?


  8. I wish I knew where that shampoo/conditioner comes from. It smells soooo good and my usually dry hair is soooooooo soft and shiny!

  9. It does say on the bottles what they are. I guess you just need to look.

  10. I love the Smart shampoo and other products. It smells like vanilla or a cinnamon bun. The bedding in the room was nice too.

  11. I’d love to find out where to purchase these products!!!

  12. I agree. I recently stayed at a Holiday Inn Express and had trouble determining what was what. The bottles should clearly be labeled “Shampoo” etc. Holiday Inn Express is my favorite but this is a major shortcoming.

  13. Well, I was smart enough to figure which was shampoo and which was conditioner and I love them both and would like to know where I can purchase them for my personal use. Thank you!!!!

  14. I thought it was pretty easy to determine which was shampoo and conditioner. The lotion was great. I, also, would like to know where the products can be purchased for personal use.

  15. I would like to purchase freshen mouth wash that I got at the Holiday Inn we stayed at. It is great. Is there any way I can purchase it???

  16. I am the sales manager for the Holiday Inn Express Airport Dieppe in Moncton,NB, Canada. Just wanted to let you all know you can get Holiday Inn Express products on Smart Mart ( You can buy shampoo, lotion or a showerhead even a pillow! Check it out!

  17. April the link that you posted does not work.

  18. I found a place you can order them… here’e the link

  19. Here’s a new link for you to try:


  20. Well….all these links work till I post them….so I would just suggest going to http://www.hiexpress.coma and clicking on SmartMart whick will take you right to it!

  21. and look at the bottom middle to right…and go to Smart Mart

  22. really, there HAS to be something more important to write about- you seem talented- use that! The shampoo’s are fine, the bottles are small, hence, small labels.

  23. Very nice article. I would like to add that the soap and shampoo smell like ginger snaps or some sort of sweet snack, which in turn makes you appear insane to others when they see you flailing your arms about because you’ve stepped outside and attracted a swarm of flies, grizzly bears and near by fat camp escapees. You are right about that breakfast, though. It is fantastic.

  24. People, you are kiddng right? If the worst thing that happens to you in a day is that you can’t figure out what the little bottles in the hotel contain, I think you may have bigger issues. To have an entire article about it? Can we please get a grip? If this is really that serious, why wouldn’t you read the bottles first? I wear glasses (my eyes are horrible, things need to be within an inch of my face for me too read them w/o my glasses.), and I did not have this problem with the bottles. I know what hotels usually put out for guests, so, I tend to check and see what is what before using them. A LOT of hotel chains have their own packaging for these items and the bottles ALL look THE SAME; you have to read the bottles pretty much everywhere. These days it’s hard to tell the difference between the shampoo and conditioner in the STORE (have you ever bought Panteen?). If you are mixing up the, usually, BLUE mouth wash, there are definate problems. I would think that smell might give that away. (I realize this was probably a facitious remark on the authors part, but let’s complain about things that really matter.) I think that taking responsibility for your own actions needs to come into play here. Or, if your eyes are really that bad, just go get your glasses. I put mine on before I even get out of bed.
    Sorry, but that is my two cents.

  25. I would like to see LARGER bottles for sale at their website. Is that possible??

  26. If you’re not smart enough to figure out that Wash is a shampoo than you have much bigget hings to worry about than toiletry labels.

  27. Thanks for putting a smile on my face, its the middle of the week work is crazy and to have something light hearted like that is just fantastic.

  28. I don’t think you need to worry about where the products come from as long as it’s free and smells nice.
    Everbody has there favorites and when they grt home they nearly always revert back to them.
    How many people do you know that goes out of there way to purchase a shampoo they used in a hotel or even on a cruise.
    The article made me smile and cheered me up.


  29. You can get 12 bottles for just $1.10 each (plus shipping) here:
    They only have a few lots, and I’ve already bought some.

    (These are impossible to find, especially because the Holiday Inn Express website wants to sell you the entire set of shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, etc. for 10 bucks plus shipping and you’d only get ONE bottle of lotion. That’s crazy.)

  30. I love the smell of the shampoo and will purchase some. I did just learn that the “Soften” was lotion and not Conditioner like I thought it was. No wonder it didn’t work! :)

  31. Stayed @ HI in Grapevine,Tx. and had a great time. I love the little products. The lotion smells so nice, and I will purchase some as soon as I find it. When I put it on I remember my stay there. Thanks HI

  32. Satisfactory blog, some interesting information. I remember 9 of days ago, I have found a similar post. Does anyone know how to track future posts?

  33. A roommate left a bottle of freshen behind and I have used it as toilet water more than once.I figured it was for ladies but since the smell wasn’t overpowering, I was out of deodorant. Now I have to go floss my armpits:)

  34. If anyone could tell me the exact scent of simply smart wash and shampoo that would be great, i absolutely love the smell and it’s bugging me that i dont know what it smells like!

  35. Please!

  36. :D

  37. we have shampoo that would be great, i absolutely it was for ladies but since the smell wasn’t of experience figured relative to the product overpowering mentioned the years

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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