Brands are big news. Or, as success guru Tom Peters explains, “Today, brands are everything, and all kinds of products and services — from accounting firms to sneakers to restaurants — are figuring out how to transcend the narrow boundaries of their categories and become a brand surrounded by a Tommy Hilfiger-like buzz.”

We all experience the buzz of great brands every day, from the wake-up call of our first triple shot, non-fat, gingersnap latte at Star-bucks to setting the sleep timer on our iPod at night. And now spas have caught the brand buzz in a big way. Canyon Ranch, Breathe, Greenbrier and Deepak Chopra are a few of the big names that are either considering or already have branched out into branding.

Critics say that it is a move in the wrong direction for an industry that is founded on highly individualized, intimate, one-on-one therapies that focus on the spiritual more than the commercial. Branding spas, they say, is like trying to replicate the relationship you have with your shrink or duplicating a transcendent natural experience like viewing the Northern Lights.

That concern might be valid if branding was all about the bottom line, but it's not. Branding is about developing trust and making an emotional connection with consumers. The spa branding buzz actually began with the boom in spa popularity as hotel and resort developers struggled to meet the expectations of increasingly spa-savvy consumers. In response, hotel and resort corporations began developing in-house brands that assured spa goers a consistency of quality in all of their spas.

“Treatments in programs and series allow the guest to commit to their well being and capture the guest as a repeat and dedicated customer. Relationships are built between the spa and the guests,” says Karen Korpi, vice president Spa Division, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. “Even a resort spa can accomplish the series program for a guest staying at the hotel for two or more days. As a network of spas, we can offer the series to be redeemed at any of our locations as the guest travels.”

For spas that have spent years carefully developing programs based on singular philosophies, branding has provided an opportunity to spread the gospel, not dilute it.

Canyon Ranch, the legendary Tucson, AZ, retreat, was one of the first gold-standard destination spas to expand its brand by opening a satellite SpaClub at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas (since then others have opened at The Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee, FL; and on board the Queen Mary II).

Canyon Ranch satellites lease space from property owners and then install and operate the spa according to the philosophy of its destination resorts.

“It's not about the marble on the floor or taking a fitness class,” says Laurie Marini, Canyon Ranch chief operating officer. “We're not trendy. Our treatments and products are consistent across all of our venues and emphasize therapeutic value. Every member of our staff is trained to send our message through their work with clients.”

This branding collaboration has been a win-win for the resort and spa. In 2004 and 2005, The SpaClubs at the Venetian and the Gaylord Palms received prestigious four-star ratings from Mobile Travel Guide's America's Best Hotel & Resort Spa.

“There is now opportunity for many more people to taste the Canyon Ranch experience — 300,000 annually in Vegas compared to 30,000 visitors to our destination spas,” Marini says. “If even one percent of them visit a destination, we'll have accomplished a lot.”

Following Canyon Ranch's trend-free example, Deepak Chopra's signature program based on esoteric Ayvurvedic Therapies and the wellness philosophies in his numerous books will soon be expanding from the Deepak Chopra Center at La Costa Resort and Spa in Southern California. Under the careful direction of Chopra's organization, an East Coast flagship spa at New York's Dream Hotel will open this summer as well as at least 12 satellite spas across the country.

Creating a spa experience isn't analogous to selling soda pop, nor is successful branding the same as mass market success. Indeed, I'd argue that the expansion of ultra-premium spas through branding is the high tide lifting all boats. Top notch branding is raising industry standards, increasing consumer satisfaction all the while giving proof to the maxims, “A good reputation is more valuable than money. A good name is worth more than its weight in gold.”

Polly Johnson is vice president for SpaEquip Corporate Accounts Division. SpaEquip offers technical spa consultations during the design phase and are a FF&E and OS&E procurement company for many of the world's finest destination and resort spas.