Mountains don't smile back
The first in a series of articles on place and destination branding.
Much has been written about destination branding with some claiming that it is very different from branding goods or services. But is it?
In the first of a regular series of Destination Branding Master Classes, TEAM tourism and branding specialist, George Whitfield, reveals the truths behind the confusion.
The title for this series of articles has a serious intent. It is a reminder that however spectacular the scenery, however famous the culture, however grand the built environment or however tangible the patina of history, the most important measure of any destination remains the reality of how visitors are treated and how they are made to feel. The most beautiful landscape in the world will not compensate for an inability to make a visitor or guest feel wanted, welcome and delighted.
The Essence of Branding
Branding is all about making the experience of a place as positive, memorable, different and exceptional as it can possibly be. A brand is a promise. To mean anything, a promise must be delivered and kept. The promise is not that visitors will find features of the destination physically present but that they will enjoy the experience of those physical attributes in a way that exceeds their expectations. It is the experience, not physical attributes and features, that fulfils a brand's promise.
A great deal has been written on the subject of 'place' and 'destination' branding. Some brand authorities claim that branding 'places' is an entirely different proposition to branding fast moving consumer goods or services. That is not the case. Branding is a business discipline, which starts from a very simple core proposition. This is the case whether it is branding for a tin of peanuts, an automobile, a chain of retail stores, a bank, an airline, a city or a country.
It would certainly be true to say that there are differences between all of these enterprises in the methods and ease with which they can implement their brand strategy. Unlike product branding, place branding is seldom under the control of a central authority that can dictate policy. There will always be constraints for places and destinations over which they have little or no control. But that does not change the basic disciplines required to define the brand or the tangible benefits of competitive differentiation and profitable growth that result from effective branding.
So rather than being some kind of mutant version of the real thing, 'place' and 'destination' branding are about as mainstream as it gets and, when properly executed, the results can be far more comprehensive, economically significant and socially important than for virtually any other branding exercise.
This first article looks at the starting point of the branding exercise and the steps that can be taken to make sure that this vital stage is thoroughly and creatively executed. In addition, the article briefly examines how starting out right can impact on all subsequent elements of the brand strategy.
But first, there are four axioms for any brand development exercise that exert an essential influence on all further discussion.
Four Precepts for Developing Powerful Brands
The Branding Process: identifying the Primary Visitor Target
- The exercise is customer-driven. It is not what you think you have that matters but what the customer/visitor tells you they would like.
- Branding demands exceptional focus - focus on a primary audience profile and focus on the most compelling proposition for this audience. You cannot be all things to all people. It is a trap too frequently fallen into by DMO's and NTO's since they generally have a broad range of competing interests to satisfy. But compromise is a word that is a long way down in the branding lexicon. DMO and NTO managers and directors often have enviable skills for satisfying diverse agendas but lack experience or the real authority to champion a cutting edge brand concept through the political maelstrom. All too often this results in a 'me-too', watered-down, committee-designed brand proposition that fails to differentiate and squanders resources.
- Branding demands commitment, innovation and creativity. While the branding discipline follows a logical path from start to final brand establishment, that path is easily side-tracked. To truly differentiate from the competition, to take full account of customers' emotional responses, not just their rational ones, and to stay consistently focused requires tenacity, imagination and flair.
- Branding is not a marketing exercise involving words, pictures and symbols. It is the cornerstone of a destination's business growth strategy with consequential influence over investment, planning and regulatory policies. It is not something to be entrusted to advertising agencies, graphic designers or general management consultants and it should not be under-resourced.
Before starting to design any kind of proposition, the first step is to decide whom the destination most wants to attract. Most places have a current visitor base and can start with an analysis of these visitors and what appears to appeal to them. But great caution is needed since this is an exercise that can quickly lead to unproductive conclusions. A place may not want to continue to attract these same people. It must ask hard questions about their reasons for visiting and whether these reasons fall into areas that are of long term benefit to the future of the destination.
Quantity vs. Quality
Sophisticated visitor data and analysis can sometimes identify those visitors who spend most and appear to come for the "right" reasons. Many destinations would regard these as prime prospects. Profitability, as a measure of customer importance, is often used in product branding but is all too often ignored in favour of sheer numbers by many destinations. Even though spending data by visitor may not exist, it is often not difficult to make some logical estimates of which visitor segments might contribute more significantly than others. Common sense would suggest that a day visitor from a cruise ship, is not going to spend as much as a hotel guest.
To these kinds of analyses must be added more subjective factors when defining the 'ideal visitor'. There is a great temptation in places that have convention facilities to include business and convention visitors as a primary target. But it is important to ask how much independent choice these visitors and several other categories of visitor have in the selection of the destination. The answer may be 'very little'. It rarely makes sense to craft a destination's proposition around a group of visitors whose selection criteria for their visit are several steps removed from the destination experience itself.
There is one other important topic concerning visitor analysis that demands consideration. Traditionally, audience segments, customers and prospects have been defined by socio-demographic criteria such as age, sex, occupation, education, income, domicile, life stage and family composition. These might have been convenient categories but they are not, in reality, very helpful.
Most quantitative research today is designed either to predict behaviour or to track behaviour over time. Behaviour, particularly in modern society with its ethnic diversity, longer life, later aging and media promoted outlooks, is based less and less on factors such as age, income and occupation. In North America the use of traditional socio-demographics has been largely superseded by criteria reflecting values, attitudes and lifestyle that are far more predictive of behaviour.
Some pioneering work in this area is being done by a company in the U.K. whose eight population categories closely mirror the popular VALS segmentation developed some thirty years ago in the U.S. The names of the British segments are: High Street, Style Hounds, Cosmopolitans, Followers, Traditional Core, Discoverers, Habituals and Functionals. Analysing prospective visitors and their reasons for choice using psychographic segment profiles like these is likely to be far more accurate and predictive than using more traditional demographics.
This article has dwelt on the question of focus in the primary audience selection at some length since it is a vital building block in the branding process and can de-rail a lot of subsequent work if it is not thought through with great care. Once the essential characteristics of the prime target audience have been identified and described, the next step is to understand how this audience thinks. This involves not only the normal investigation of what they think, but also why. Since the why element is predominantly associated with non-rational motivation, research is not very good at discovering its real nature. Research does not know what questions to ask and, since people are not very good at talking about their emotions, the right answers are elusive. Very often, intelligent judgement is a better solution than flawed research.
Once a primary target audience with a tight focus has been identified and some knowledge assembled concerning what they like about a destination, the process of creating the ideal proposition starts. By now, there should be a full inventory of all that the place or destination has to offer, an analysis of which elements seem most popular and a comprehensive summary of visitor enquiry topics. But it is important to remember that it isn't what the destination thinks it can offer that matters most but what visitors would like it to be. It is at this point that it helps to step back and to try and apply creativity to the interpretation of strategic intelligence.
|A Short Case History
This case history illustrates how dramatic breakthroughs can come from the creative interpretation of market data. In 1978 it was known that 78% of holiday visitors to the Caribbean from North America travelled as a couple. Few, if any, Caribbean countries were enjoying the benefits of large and sustained year-round visitor numbers. It was still primarily a winter escape destination for the well-to-do. Traditional hotels at various 'star' quality levels of accommodation offered American Plan, MAP and E.P. meal plan options. But, on the whole, visitors were well satisfied with their holidays in the region and honeymooners would come back with glowing reports of romantic resorts.
The fact that most visitors went as a couple was hardly paid any attention at all. The hotels offered what hotels always traditionally offered - rooms and restaurants on the beach. My company looked at the proportion of travellers who went as a couple and had a completely different reaction. It seemed to us that there was a real opportunity to design a holiday experience directly targeted at the largest market of visitors to the Caribbean.
So we designed a holiday for the couple. To do this we looked at how we could change what was currently on offer to tailor it specifically to the couple. Apart from obvious physical features like double beds and double hammocks, it became evident that tailoring meant removing impediments to the experience of romance on holiday. So the new holiday design eliminated the distraction of children, the competitiveness of single guests and the ancient source of much disharmony - money.
The holiday was positioned through its brand name and launched as 'Couples'. It was immensely successful. Because monetary transactions at the resort were removed, the cost of the whole holiday with all its drinks, meals, entertainment and sports was paid for prior to arrival. This feature almost inadvertently created the most popular of all Caribbean concepts to this day, called the all-inclusive.
The Couples concept and the all-inclusive payment formula became the basis for several of the Caribbean's most successful chains of resorts like SuperClubs, SunSwept resorts, Sandals and the continuing Couples chain itself. All it took was a little creative interpretation and one very courageous hotelier.
The Brand Positioning Statement
At this stage, a focused, primary target of ideal visitors has been identified. Data has been assembled on not only what this target wants from their visit but also a good deal of information has been gathered about why they want the ideal they describe. An assessment is now possible to measure broadly how the destination stacks up against the ideal experience described by the primary visitor audience. There is some understanding of the emotional triggers that motivate the audience and the time has come to synthesize all this into a single proposition called the 'brand positioning statement'.
There are four useful criteria to bear in mind when crafting a brand positioning statement.
- This is a strategic statement for corporate or internal use only and is not designed for use as a public pronouncement of any kind. Once refined and agreed, it is the blueprint which all other activity should follow from the creative expression of the brand identity to the future tourism investment strategy.
- The platform must serve to differentiate the place or destination from anything else available. If it fails to do this, the destination will merely join a crowd and become part of the wallpaper. Poor positioning will guarantee that the slogan does not reflect a unique destination experience. This happened recently with two destination branding exercises on different continents. Canada had decided that its unique proposition could best be summarised in the line 'Discover Our True Nature'. At about the same time, a major region of England reached almost the same conclusion with a slogan that declared 'It's In Our Nature'. Now, there are at least five other national brand slogans that use the word 'nature'.
- The brand positioning statement must contain the brand promise.
- The platform must offer the prospective visitor a distinct and relevant benefit that reflects what the audience has said it wants from their ideal experience of the destination.
The Impact of Starting Out Right
It will probably be evident by now that getting the basics right at the outset of the branding process is vital. If the wrong questions are posed to the wrong audience the results will lead the whole process off track.
As Stephen O'Neill cautioned in his excellent article 'Don't Neglect Your Brand' in the last issue of DMO World, it is important that brand positioning should not be dominated by customer research. This can lead to a scenario where customers will tell every destination the same things with the result that destination brand positions are all very similar. Judging by the slogans identified earlier, this caution is highly relevant.
Focusing on the primary target audience is another function of professional branding that pays enormous dividends. It is often, also, the most difficult to 'sell' internally. It can appear to be leaving out vitally important visitor segments from the brand equation. In fact it does not. What it does do is to enable the brand positioning to be far more precise and competitive than any approach that attempts to embrace a broader audience spectrum.
By having a focused audience profile and understanding their needs and emotional triggers with great accuracy, the resultant brand position and identity will attract every other potential audience and probably many others besides that had not even been contemplated. Get the message right for the few ideal visitors and the rest will respond - always. In the case of places and destinations, the 'rest' can often mean vital new investment, industrial relocation and other economic drivers. It remains true that if a place is attractive for a holiday, it also heightens its chance of being considered as a good place to live and work.
A cutting-edge brand position with exceptional delivery of the brand promise will attract an audience to that brand whose depth and breadth will be astounding.
A Global Perspective
The final word in this article is to encourage all DMOs and NTOs to view their place or destination brand in a global context. With affordable air travel, ease of access to information and booking via the web and the globalization of so many facets of life, a regional or continental view of the brand is too limiting.
Every major destination is in competition with other destinations from around the globe. It is important to know what others are doing not only to avoid duplication but also to ensure the development of as distinctive and differentiated a proposition as possible. Differentiation is simply not possible without comprehensive knowledge of what the competition is doing.
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George Whitfield is a leading tourism and brand strategist for TEAM, Tourism Enterprise and Management. George can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Future articles in this series will discuss other topics central to the branding process for 'places' and 'destinations', including:
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- The brand as a blueprint
- Living the brand values
- Delivering the brand promise
- Pride and purpose among brand constituents
- Emotional branding
- Customer loyalty and evangelism
- Visitor relationship management
- Customer-centred growth
- Websites as a brand tool
- The role of the private sector in destination branding
- Expressing the brand identity.