DMO World News header image
 The DMO World Destination Branding Master Class                      March 2005 | Issue 3
Mountains don’t smile back
The second in our series of articles on place and destination branding.

In the last issue, TEAM tourism and branding specialist, George Whitfield, stressed the importance of placing the visitor at the centre of any brand development exercise. But it’s not always that easy…

The second part of the DMO World Destination Branding Master Class takes a look at some of the obstacles faced by places and destinations in delivering their brand promise effectively.


The first article in this series defined the essence of a brand, recognised the importance of the visitor as the starting point for any brand development exercise and stressed the need for focus, commitment, creativity and the intelligent use of research.

The second article in this series deals with some of the obstacles faced by places and destinations in delivering their brand promise effectively while reviewing the whole process involved in brand execution.

But first, we revisit what is meant by branding a place or destination. A place brand is, quite simply, a promise that describes a compelling experience in realistic but competitively differentiated terms and that offers the visitor a distinct and desired benefit.

The starting point for any branding exercise is what the visitor wants, not what the destination thinks it has to offer. In many cases, the most powerful brand strategies recognise that the principal resource of a place, and therefore a primary determinant in its ability to attract visitors, is as much the people who live there as it is the natural or built environment or anything that is made or done there.


Ultimately, it is always the people that assume the responsibility for delivering the brand promise and who are consequently essential to the brand’s development. Physical attributes like great scenery, renowned culture, iconic monuments and the dramas of history all play a part but cannot, in and of themselves, present the real experience of a place. However stunning their vistas, mountains don’t smile back and it is how the visitor is treated that defines and differentiates one city, region or country most powerfully from the next.

This series of articles will repeatedly stress the importance of differentiation in any place or destination brand strategy. The vast majority of the world’s international tourism arrivals are accounted for by less than two dozen destinations. Whether a destination is lucky enough to be one of these two dozen, or strives to join this elite community, marketing and sales budgets, overseas offices and visitor communications’ expenditures will be largely wasted if the destination is not seen to stand for something different and appealing. This remains true whether the brand is for a country, region, sub-region, city, town or district.


Most competitiveness does not derive from superiority but is achieved by effective differentiation. But this differentiation is more than skin-deep. It relates back to the totality of the visitors’ perceptions and how these are either reinforced through consistency across all categories of contact or challenged by lack of synergy and coordination across these same channels.


It is important to recognise that the ways in which visitors form their perceptions embrace a far greater spectrum than just the face-to-face contact with residents that visitors encounter when they travel to a destination. The effectiveness with which a brand is built through cumulative visitor perceptions depends largely on the synergies between the myriad ways in which places express themselves, often long before the visitor ever sets foot on the branded territory. How a visitor anticipates they will be treated is every bit as important as his or her actual experience of the destination in delineating the brand and its values. In his chapter on Branding Places and Nations in The Economist’s book titled ‘Brands and Branding’, Simon Anholt breaks down these expressions into six broad categories of communication. These are the ways in which a place communicates its brand values as a destination. They derive from the channels through which any country or region or city interacts with the rest of the global community. These channels are:

  • Tourism
    Often a big spender but, frequently, quite seriously out of line with the other five categories of communication. Spending is contributed by hotels and resorts, tour operators, airlines and the tourist board, each with its own promotional agenda and priorities. If there is a glaring lack of consistency to the message each promotes, the perceptions of a place can be seriously undermined and fragmented. Given the potency of their combined spending power, such influences can undermine the real strengths of a place if they fail to recognise the synergistic realities of their messages both with one another and with the other five categories. The tendency to over-glamorise, often in a vain effort to outshine competition, can be dangerously counterproductive.
  • Export Brands
    A powerful, distinct and appealing destination brand can lend enormous credibility to exporters who, in turn, can endow a place or nation with powerful, emotional associations and imagery. The emotional components for the country and its exporters that phrases like ‘Swiss precision’, ‘German efficiency’, ‘Italian design’ and ‘Made in Japan’ have on categories of goods like watches, automobiles, fashion and electronics is legendary. National products and exports are one of the most powerful ways in which a nation’s image is built and sustained. Conversely, a powerful national brand identity is one of the most valuable gifts a state, country or region can give to its industrial partners.
  • Foreign and Domestic Policy
    Apart from the grandeur of its natural endowment, Canada is an example of a destination whose foreign policy has helped to determine its brand perception. One of the strongest external manifestations of Canada’s national character is the peace-keeping role it invariably plays in foci of international conflict. By contrast, its neighbour to the South projects a very different international image through its more interventionist policies. In domestic affairs also, the attitudes and actions of a country’s or region’s leaders speak volumes about the true nature of a place and consequently wield great power, both positive and negative, to influence its image.
  • Inward Investment
    It is an obvious fact that the more positive, compelling and sustainable the image of a place, the more likely it is to get onto the right shortlists for inward investment. But this can result in an over-simplified view of how inward investment is attracted. Too often, the apparent soft and cuddly image needs of the tourism sector are considered to be at odds with the perceptions of technological sophistication and workforce skills deemed essential for business location. The article will discuss this conflict in greater detail but these different sectors’ requirements need not be mutually exclusive if they are carefully managed in alignment with a powerful national image.
  • Culture and Heritage
    This is an important context for any destination brand as it can provide a third dimension so often absent in places that see growth as a purely economic issue. Culture, heritage and sport give places richness, dignity, trust and respect abroad while contributing hugely to the quality of life at home.
  • Citizenry
    The most important ambassadors a destination can have are its citizens. They represent a constant channel of communication that can contribute far more successfully to positive perceptions than high profile public figures. The passionate endorsement of the place where they live by the average citizen enjoys the benefit of believability and engenders a trust that few public figures can emulate.
Each of these six channels should be regarded as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. If all six can be harnessed in a positive and synergistic way, rather than fighting each other as is so often the case, the potential for building a strong destination brand increases and the utility of that brand to meet internal and external objectives is multiplied.


One of the most frequently quoted concerns expressed over the ability of a destination to becoming a successful brand is the lack of control exerted by any central authority over the spectrum of the delivery system, chiefly represented by people. Similar arguments have even be applied to the physical and cultural attributes of a destination – that you either have assets that are attractive or you don’t and there’s not much a destination can do if it hasn’t got the ‘basic physical ingredients’.

These are, fortunately, spurious arguments and serve only to highlight a lack of creative thought and committed purpose by those who advance them. First of all there is a great deal that a destination or place can do to ensure that the people responsible for delivering the brand promise are all singing from the same song sheet. Perhaps the first step, and one of the most important, is to invite those who will be concerned with delivering the brand promise to collaborate in its formation and design. Then, once these principles have arrived at a consensus, the essence of the brand promise must be communicated to all public and private sector directors, investors, managers, partners, employees and stakeholders who will have any kind of a role in delivering the brand promise.


This point sounds very obvious but is all too often overlooked. In order for people to deliver against a brand promise, they need to first know what it is. It is not just destinations that have a poor track record in this regard. Most companies fail to communicate their brand vision to their employees. Most of us can quote more than one example where we have responded to an offer from a company only to be told at the shop counter that the sales clerk has no idea what we’re talking about.

Home Pride
Quite apart from the power that a distinctive, differentiated, compelling, sustainable and truthful brand position has to impact on the economy, reputation and progress of a place, in many instances the effect that the same brand proposition has on the pride, motivation and self-esteem of its people can be even more dramatic. Just because a central destination authority may not have the power to fire a citizen for failure to follow the brand ethos in the way that a corporation can, this in no way reduces the power of that authority to communicate with and motivate its inhabitants to want to ‘live the brand’.

Of course, just like the private sector, not everyone who should reflect the brand promise will do so on every occasion. Branded behaviour, as it is called, in the corporate world is not something that can be instilled by fear. It must grow as a self-propagating ethos based on example and personal motivation. In the population of a sizeable country, there may be millions that place their own agenda before that of the state. But it does not take more than a nucleus of enthusiastic souls and genuinely motivated citizens to start to turn around the reputation of a destination. The word spreads fast and those unwilling to participate may find themselves in danger of social or political exclusion.

Brand Values
Enthusiastic participation of a sizeable majority is made a great deal easier by imaginative brand positioning with brand values for the citizenry to deliver that align naturally with existing cultural and behavioural norms. To expect behaviour that is contrary to moral, historical or ethical models in order to align to some revolutionary new concept of how a destination would like to be perceived is quite unrealistic and demonstrates a weak strategy and poor groundwork underlying the brand strategy.

Brand Identity Expression
The creative expression of the brand identity can play a central role in motivating people to want to deliver the essence of the brand promise. Slogans like ‘Simply Beautiful’ or ‘Nature’s Best Kept Secret’ call for little or no action on the part of the population. By contrast ‘I ? New York’, ‘No artificial ingredients’ and ‘Smile. You’re in Spain’ suggest a role for the populace to ensure the claim is valid, if nothing else. The topic of brand identity and expression will be dealt with in more detail in a subsequent article in this series.

Beyond measures such as these, encouraging and enabling the people and inhabitants of a destination to ‘live the brand’ can be deliberately implemented through partners and stakeholders whose employees are the most likely to come into direct contact most often with visitors. Whether this is a government sponsored campaign among taxi drivers such as Barbados runs, a hotel driven initiative or a customs and immigration ‘smile’ campaign, the effects are invariably rapid and noticeable, again, starting the feeling that something different and important is happening and encouraging others to join the movement.

What these kinds of example reveal is that there is less need for a central authority to have control than for a central authority to lead by example. This is as true for brand delivery in the private sector as it is in the public sector. Frequently it can be simple little programmes of support, competition and recognition that can forge the toughest tissue of a community spirit dedicated to delivering the brand’s values.

Physical Assets
Physical Asset Poverty is also quoted as a barrier to powerful brand creation. Countries rarely need to concern themselves with such an issue since there are no examples in the text books of countries that have no physical attraction, or history, or culture, or a built environment that is of no value whatever in brand creation. The same is not always true of regions, sub-regions or more closely defined places. Very often, examination of this objection yields a concern that has less to do with lack of assets and more to do with overcoming established negative perceptions.

A Case History Example

The first counter to this objection is inherent in the title of this series of articles. Mountains don’t smile back, people do. My former company in Canada was heavily involved with the resurgence of tourism to Cuba some ten years after Castro took power. As a tourist destination the best description I can give of Cuba at that stage was ‘pillaged’. Food was rationed and sparsely available, basic sanitary facilities were intermittent, alcohol was rum or a non-descript beer, entertainment was rudimentary at best and the standards of accommodation and housekeeping were atrocious. The whole infrastructure of the country – transportation, communications, light, power and water all teetered on the verge of collapse.

But Cuba was saved by its people. After just one decade of Communism and isolation, there was a magical spirit of curiosity, delight, welcome and enthusiasm that was infectious. Add beautiful beaches and low prices and the formula for success was forged. What could have been the worst kind of disaster based on asset poverty was turned into a sparkling success engendering almost fanatical customer loyalty and repeat business long before the brand formula strategies we recognise today were even articulated.

The message bears repeating. People are the primary asset of any place or destination, not the physical backdrop. If you don’t have people you are unlikely to have a brand. Perhaps Antarctica seen from the decks of a converted Russian troop carrier is an exception as the promise of great grandeur in an untouched land is delivered – but visitors still talk about their treatment on board ship as much as they do the icebergs and snowfields.

Overcoming Genuine Asset Poverty
If a destination genuinely believes that it suffers from asset poverty, there are several proven routes it can take to redress the balance. It can undertake a regeneration project. The UK and Ireland are grand examples of EU, Lottery and other funds being spent on city, town and district regeneration projects from Liverpool to Plymouth, Dublin to Okehampton. Many European and US cities have undergone substantial reconstruction and revitalisation over the past fifteen years with highly positive results and associated opportunities for re-branding.

Another route to introduce significant visitor magnets is that of developing special events, festivals and sports spectacles. Whether this be the large investment in a Formula One race track, a transatlantic yacht race for cruisers or a music festival, the focus this affords a place or destination, the exposure it generates and the opportunity to make a statement in line with a brand strategy are all powerful reasons to consider this option. An ‘introduced’ asset for the purpose of attracting visitor traffic can even boil down to something as simple as a retail mall. The small town of Barrie, Ontario in Canada, half an hour’s highway drive North of Toronto, has carved out a reputation as the brand name discount centre of the province. Barrie boasts a gigantic shopping mall that has attracted brand name clothing manufacturers’ discount warehouse sales of seconds, end of lines and slower moving items. It is just now starting to move into warehouse sales for other goods and provides a powerful draw from Canadian cities and towns as well as from the US whose visitors can take additional advantage of the still significant dollar exchange differential.


This second article in the series will end with two brief discussions. The first is to expand on an earlier point concerning the apparent conflict between differing agendas for the brand as these relate to visitor attraction and inward investment. The second topic examined briefly is trust and how trust is at the heart of the relationship between visitor and place.

Discussion: The Differing Agendas Quandry

Perhaps the most basic mistake that destination brands can make is to view the agendas for visitor attraction and for inward investment as somehow mutually exclusive. There is a legendary quotation that says a place that is good to visit is also likely to be good to work in. This idea starts to tie these two, often disparate, agendas together. The unspoilt, laid back, slower paced, human face of life depicted by so much tourism branding need not be anathema to the trade ministry trying to attract investment from international corporations. On the contrary, quality of life for workers and managers is an important consideration for location decisions in the modern industrialised world.

But there are other factors that suggest it is neither wise nor advisable to position a destination brand based on the inward investment agenda unless the place concerned has no tourism attraction objectives whatever. Any worthwhile inward investor is going to have done their homework in exceptional depth and detail before committing to invest in another locale. They will know whether there is a concentration of synergistic businesses in the location if that is important to them. They will know the availability of an educated local workforce, the extent and sophistication of the communications and transportation infrastructure, and they will have studied the relevant tax and duty implications of their potential decision.

Once again, the successful candidate in a competition for inward investment is most likely not to be the location that can demonstrate that they have the most of everything but the one that can show they know most about the needs of the potential investor, have anticipated those needs and can be relied upon to deliver the most tailored and attractive package of environmental, human and fiscal conditions and incentives as possible. The key word is ‘anticipate’. Much of the brand delivery process, since it is so people dependent, relies on attitude. If a government, council, regional assembly or other authority looking to attract inward investment genuinely demonstrates the right attitude of anticipation, cooperation and assistance, the battle is well over half won.

The facts and figures associated with the investment agenda may have little to do with the brand promise for leisure visitor attraction, but the attitude and behaviour will, hopefully, be indistinguishable from the brand delivery to a leisure audience. Anticipation, assistance and cooperation are as vital to creating devoted visitors as they are for impressing investors. There is far greater synergy than most people realise between the brand strategy for visitor attraction and the ability of that same strategy to support and enhance the agenda of those concerned with inward investment.

Meeting the needs of diverse constituents
This argument is not designed to sugar coat the very real challenges that face public sector destination branding in reconciling and aligning the interests of diverse constituencies. These can range from local and regional bodies, environmental groups, trade associations, tour operators, public sector unions, representatives of culture and the arts, airlines, catering establishments and hotel associations.

What experience has shown, however, is that if branding follows the guidelines proposed in these articles, starting from the visitor’s point of view, designing a central promise around an experience and delivering that promise with the right attitude, the visceral conflicts of the past can often be supplanted by a more rational recognition that delivering a promise, creating a bond of trust and demonstrating the right attitude are more important components of the brand strategy than any list of attributes, physical attractions and historical associations.

Discussion: The Importance of Trust

The final word in this article involves trust. When a promise is kept, especially when it is kept repeatedly, a bond of trust grows to bind the one who makes the promise to the recipient of its delivery. Trust is probably the most fragile of all brand attributes but it is undoubtedly the most important. Without trust there is little loyalty. Without loyalty, there is less likelihood of endorsement and evangelism. These spontaneous outcomes of real trust are an important goal of all branding. Customer endorsement and evangelism are the most powerful and least costly form of promotion a destination can have. They start to make the ROI of branding move confidently into the black.

The sooner places and destinations can move their thinking from physical attributes to the emotions of a unique experience, learn to highlight the synergies between differing agendas rather than the conflicts and gain appreciation for the devotion that trust generates, the more likely those destinations are to reap the real and extended benefits of a great brand.


Having what it takes to craft an effective brand proposition and to deliver the promise of the brand across all potential contact points with visitors - past, present and potential - involves a combination of common sense and imagination.

* * *

The third article in this series we will look more closely at brand communication, portfolio branding and brand architectures, prospect motivation, non-rational decision processes in emotional branding, the importance of consistency, the brand as blueprint and the role of customer relationship management. Click here to read the first article in the series.

George Whitfield is a leading tourism and brand strategist for TEAM, Tourism Enterprise and Management. George can be contacted at

Back to top