In conversation with

Maurice Ajanaku

Former Global Brand Director at CitizenM



Staying at citizenM is like being in constant conversation with the brand. From the ambassadors casual dress as they ask “need a coffee?” to the copy above the light switch “save the planet” or the selection of shampoos –  citizenAM or citizenPM – their voice and personality is everywhere. As Global Brand Director at citizenM, Maurice Ajanaku has been at the heart of the business for many years, working side by side with the ambassadors (the team on the ground) to make sure that the brand lives at every touchpoint, including themselves. Moving onto his next challenge in the coming months, we caught up with him about his time at citizenM and his career path in getting there. 

Question and Answer

The Sonder & Tell team recently stayed at citizenM and loved how much the brand seeped into every corner of the hotel. We loved the copy at every touchpoint. The light switch that said "save the planet" for example. Has that always been the case?

It started with our founder in 2008, Rattan Chadha. He wanted to create a disruptive and unique hotel within the industry. And a big part of that was building a brand personality.  Sometimes, businesses are so busy with how to make revenue that the brand is an afterthought. But for us, the citizen brand was the business case.

The personality was always about that humanness. And making everything feel like they are connecting to a human. And you see that throughout the hotel.

When it comes to copy, that’s easy enough to control. The light switches, the copy on the walls or in your emails.  But how do you make sure that same culture and personality comes through with your ambassadors?

Yes it was so clear that the ambassadors were a reflection of the brand. How do you make sure they stay true to your values?

We hire much more on personality and values. We do a casting day and set them tasks in groups. We look at how the connect and communicate with one another. Are they authentic, are they transparent? Can they collaborate with people? We can’t train that. We can always teach them how to make a cup of coffee, but you can’t teach people how to be an empathetic human.

Even giving people the name of ambassadors gives real weight to the role. They are the heart and soul of the brand. If you took out the brand ambassadors from where you were staying in SF and put other people there, from other hotels, that don’t share our values, you would have called me and said it was terrible. Because that’s 90% of your stay. Even if you loved all the copy. They are the ones that can make or break your stay, but also make or break the brand.

How do you keep the brand front of mind for ambassadors?

There’s a continuous connection. Every morning and afternoon, the ambassadors come together. The hotels also have their own team days. They all have to collaborate and make sure the hotel runs.

Secondly, we have a reverse pyramid. We are in support of the ambassadors, not the other way around. The feedback we get on how to grow the brand comes from them, which makes them feel empowered and like they have a stake within the hotel and brand they’re representing.

“They are the ones that can make or break your stay, but also make or break the brand.”

We’ve spoken about internal ambassadors and how they represent the brand. But what about marketing and building external excitement about citizenM? What have been some of the most successful campaigns you’ve done? And why do you think they’ve been a success?

I think the most successful one we’ve done was ‘Citizens Of’. When we opened in the New York Bowery, hotels had a negative connotation within the local community. And we were getting very negative news from them because they saw us as a threat. We had to shift gears from thinking about marketing a hotel to marketing the brand’s values.

We had a diverse team that represented the community we were coming into. They knew the neighbourhood better than us. We thought we should hero the local community of the New York Bowery and find a way to pay homage to them. We wanted to create a unique exhibition using our hotel’s facade to showcase local heroes. We didn’t just go with a famous photographer from Europe or elsewhere in the U.S. – we looked locally. We worked with photographer Christelle de Castro. She knows her community better than we do and helped us create a list of who we should hero.

Across all our hotels now, we always try to find that unique story you can tell about the city through faces and portraits of the people.

Zooming out from citizenM, how did you get into brand marketing? What have been some of your most important experiences?

I’ve always been someone who loves to tell stories.

I did brand and art direction for Vlisco, an African brand that produces wax-printed textiles for the West and Central African Markets. I joined the company when they were going through a change. There was an opportunity to create something unique and local that laddered up to the overarching brand.

We had to ensure that the store design aligned with the values and pillars of the brand. Campaigns, social, e-commerce, brand ambassadors. For me, it was a very pivotal moment, learning how to take a brand vision but ensure it connects with the consumer.

What do you think the most exciting part about building a brand is?

I get excited when I work on global brands. And not only because we’re in different countries. We can only grow as humans by being shown different cultures. Culture and diversity bring innovation. The more diverse you make your internal team to reflect the diverse audience you have, the more innovation you’re going to have as a company because you’re going to have so many new ideas you didn’t otherwise think of. The beauty of culture and diversity is education, innovation, inspiration.

What is something important that brands need to focus on in the future?

The thing that a lot of brands need to focus on next, is community. That will set you apart and help you grow as a brand. I’m also a big believer that you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to build a community’. You need to think about what initiatives you can do to kick-start connections between like-minded individuals. Somewhere they come together, build and grow. That way, you let them become brand ambassadors for you.

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