Building a human-curated brand

Will Smith

  • Co-founder and head of new markets, The Plum Guide
  • Website
Will is co-founder and Head of New Markets at The Plum Guide. He has operated art galleries and, as a commercial director for Happen, led agency-based innovation projects in 23 countries.

If the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) sector and their measured worth are the final argument for the successful 21st Century model, then they are beyond reproach. Fine-tuning masses of algorithms to reduce human touchpoints and deliver wild returns to investors—all with workforces infinitesimally small compared to the giants of the 20th Century—has been proven out.  

But this isn’t us at Plum Guide. And it might not be you. There are any number of niches where human touch still delivers an impregnable position and is key to delighting other humans.   

If you have discovered points in your customer experience journey where the hand of a discerning critic or human voice can help you dominate a market chokepoint—the old ‘deep versus broad’ strategy— then here is your opportunity to take a few pages from our playbook (and perhaps learn from some of our missteps).  

Staking out a humans first model  

Algorithms have their uses, of course, but would you want to go on vacation with one? We wouldn’t, and knew there was a lovably finicky group of travellers out there who wouldn’t, either. So Plum Guide was born.  

Think of the confidence you have in your decision when being walked through a wine list by a sommelier who really knows how to listen, versus reading wine reviews in a crowdsourced platform. The choices become boggling, everything seems to have the same approximate rating and it all starts to look the same after a while. 

In our customer experience universe, there emerged three indispensable human touchpoints where we had to become absolutely fanatical about soliciting and interpreting feedback to deliver on ‘the science of the perfect stay’. Here are a few behind-the-scenes looks at how we fine-tuned human these touchpoints to deliver on a promise of a service that is perfected by humans, for humans.  

Wringing every ounce of insight

Testing every property before it goes onto our platform and sifting through test submissions from home critics and hosts was a granular, minute-to-minute thrill ride in our evolution to this point. This is how we constantly refine the rationale for all our decisions.  

We knew our brand would live or die based on the authenticity of our recommendations. And that meant maniacally granular assessments of homes and their neighbourhoods in collaboration (or sometimes fruitful friction) with home critics and guests. A few snapshots of the things we measured:  

  • We decided it was necessary to use a measuring tape to measure all beds, as calling something a ‘Queen bed’ meant entirely different things to European and American critics. 
  •  
  • Looking for pubs near the home: We tested bedroom decibel levels to gauge how neighbourhood noise would manifest in a room, but what about pub empty-out time when revellers empty into the street? This can be an acute issue for some guests and had to be incorporated into our assessments. 
  •  
  • We moved from using a water pressure measure for showers to asking our critics to hold their hand under the water stream. As it turns out, the human-ometer is a much more reliable device for reading whether or not a shower is a good shower, and our critics bravely raised their wet arms to give us a proper assessment. 
  •  
  • We’ve been told by hosts before not to touch anything during our inspections, as guests might checking in later that day. That didn’t work for us. We needed to gauge the firmness of those mattresses ourselves. This was the cause of some arguments.


As of this writing, investments in refining human feedback loops like this have managed to earn a hospitality industry-leading post-stay Net Promoter Score (NPS) that hovers around +60. Some of our larger competitors have abandoned the measure altogether when they found the results unflattering. We still pin it as a growth indicator and feel vindicated so far.

We at Plum Guide are no Luddites by any means. A digital backbone and seamless self-serve at critical points in the customer journey is essential to our growth. But if you are looking at ways you can out-perform in a niche with the indispensable richness of human-to-human contact, it can be done.  

It won’t be easy. In fact, it will likely be terrifying. But being agile and radically honest with not only your fellow entrepreneurs, but your customer, can bring your visions of a bespoke startup to life. But being human doesn’t mean being sloppy; you’ll need a very customised and frontline-tested dashboard to keep an eye on the critical indicators that tell you whether your human-curated model is viable or not. I hope our handful of behind-the-scenes stories gives you a richer perspective on how to make it live and go. 

Wishing you good fortune in your quest to make a charming human experience in the age of the algorithm. We doubtlessly have more adventures in store for us; would love to hear about yours. Share a story.

Tags: customer experience management, data-driven marketing, brand strategy

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