Mountains don't smile back
The third in our series of articles on place and destination branding.
In the March edition of DMO World, TEAM tourism and branding specialist, George Whitfield, identified some of the obstacles faced by places and destinations as they attempt to deliver their brand promise as effectively as possible.
In this, the third DMO World Destination Branding Master Class, George examines some of the practical issues involved with brand development and delivery.
The first two articles in this series have attempted to define what a brand is, recognise the importance of the visitor as the starting point for any brand development exercise, stressed the need for focus, commitment and creativity and looked in some detail at the challenges facing the whole process of delivering the brand promise in the context of a place or destination. Despite much conventional wisdom, it is people and how they treat a visitor that most effectively differentiate one destination brand from another, not physical attributes or the legacies of the past.
This third article will examine more of the practical issues involved with brand development and delivery, looking particularly at where many public sector brand projects face their own unique set of challenges which can sometimes de-rail the process before it has had a chance to make any real headway.
THE BRAND BRIEF
All too often, the brief that is issued by public sector bodies seeking to re-brand or re-define the image of a destination region is written to address the sensibilities of a multitude of stakeholders, to embrace vast compendia of previous strategic background and to be 'informed' by every imaginable study, relevant or not, conducted over the past five years. Many such briefs seem to be an attempt to justify earlier, expensive but largely non-actionable consultants' reports across numerous disciplines. A recent example required, among many central issues to be addressed, that a strategy and action plan be developed to 'revitalise and reposition tourism so that it is more productive and sustainable and able to compete effectively in an ever more aggressive marketplace'.
The brief probably meant that the work should reposition the region concerned so that tourism could grow as a result of the region differentiating itself in a meaningful and motivating way within the competitive milieu. There followed a list of ten separate strategies and vision studies, not one of which had a title remotely connected with what visitors think of the region today or how potential visitors would describe their ideal for the region tomorrow.
As so often happens, this brief became inward looking, entirely concerned with what the destination believed it had to offer or could provide, not what the visitors said they wanted. It was less of a brief and more like a straight jacket with its requirements for projected infrastructure development, appreciation of its 'proud heritage and culture', and the following list of core objectives:
- Promotion of the region as a confident, forward-looking visitor destination
- Well managed and successful tourism businesses
- Innovative, sustainable and accessible visitor products
- Development of a positive physical and economic tourism environment
- Achieving a well skilled and motivated tourism workforce and support structure
- Building on well established principles of partnership working
'Objectives' like these are unhelpful and entirely generic. They might form a footnote to the brief but, as 'core objectives' they lead nowhere and fail to open opportunities for real differentiation and innovation. The objectives are reproduced here to make the point that nowhere in this list, nor in a following definition of 'must haves', was there ever a statement that the destination would diligently inquire what past present and potential visitors to the region want and try to ensure that the region concentrated its best efforts, investment and actions to provide it.
THE TOURISM STRATEGY
Because this is where a tourism strategy should start; by identifying what visitors want and by positioning the region to address those needs in as differentiated a fashion as possible. Productive, effective tourism strategies will ensure that any promise made is kept. This will entail designing a future strategy and action plan that is entirely and comprehensively devoted to delivering the brand promise. A strategy that is not anchored in the brand promise runs a serious risk of misdirecting investment funds while placing emphasis on regional priorities not visitor pleasure. As the brief referred to in the opening paragraphs demonstrates, if the strategy is designed primarily to satisfy every last stakeholder and demonstrate synergy with every possible report it runs the severe risk of becoming mired in a sea of undifferentiated, politically correct phraseology resulting in destination mediocrity, inaction and sameness.
STARTING WITH AN OPEN MIND
A much more productive partnership between public sector organisations and the private sector consultants whom they employ to bring experience and expertise to their tourism strategies is that of open dialogue and original enquiry. If for no other reason than that it introduces some latitude to the process, untrammelled by the frequently stereotyped and often antithetical directions of the past.
EXAMPLE: ST. LUCIA
When St. Lucia wanted to re-position the country as a differentiated and preferred destination, their approach was to assemble a small group of private sector specialists as a powerful Marketing Committee chaired by the country's most successful hospitality entrepreneur and responsible directly to the Director of the Tourist Board and to the Minister for Tourism. This committee selected a consultant and allowed that consultant to help define the questions that needed answers. Part of the investigative and discovery process involved two weeks spent by the consultant in the company of local cultural, environmental and historical experts touring the length and breadth of the country followed by visits to three international offices in primary feeder markets. This first hand experience of the country and its tourism interface with visitors included the opportunity to talk in depth with those whose work and visions were vital to the current situation as well as to the future potential for tourism and the geographical distribution of its benefits.
In this exercise, St. Lucia also recognised that the country's new brand strategy would provide a road map for future infrastructure development, inward investment, export policies, and tourism development. They did not just pay lip service to innovation, they actively prepared a fertile environment in which genuinely innovative ideas could be aired and discussed.
NTOs, RTOs and DMOs with the responsibility for briefing private sector experts to assist their efforts in brand positioning and strategic action should try to start the process with as empty and open a slate as possible. Experienced consultants will readily recognise and incorporate those elements of historical relevance and current attributes whose integration and capitalisation can enhance future efforts. Apparently simple preparations and understanding, such as that which can only be achieved by first hand exposure across the full spectrum of a region's current and potential visitor experience, should not be overlooked. The cost of the consultant's time – and it should be a senior individual capable of interpretive analysis, not a note taker – is always likely to be negotiable for such an important exercise and will repay the investment immeasurably through the quality, accuracy and forward-looking value of the resulting proposals.
A FRAMEWORK FOR PREPARATION
Getting the inputs right for a tourism strategy is extremely important. A strategy is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Before a strategy can be formulated, it is essential to define an objective that the strategy is designed to achieve. The familiar adage: 'In the minds of our key audience…', 'Where are we now? Where would we like to be? How are we going to get there?' is still a helpful framework for approaching the task facing many DMOs. In a brand context, especially, the first question includes a vital analysis of current target market perceptions and future core market segmentation. The second question sets objectives and leads to the brand positioning statement and the third question details the strategy and an action plan for delivering the brand promise. All too often, the briefs for outsourcing work on tourism growth start with the detail of past strategies, work their way laboriously through a litany of partnership requirements and finally tack branding on at the end as a sort of glossy, bolt-on accessory that will make all the hard slog of action plans look more glamorous.
Much of the content in this series of articles challenges this methodology and attempts to demonstrate how and why a destination's brand positioning and definition should be the core element that drives all other decisions, strategies and action plans. A brand is a blueprint for the future; not just for destinations and places but for corporations, products, celebrities, charities and organisations of all stripes and colours. The brand promise summarises the core of what the customer can expect. If the brand promise is correctly used it will be the yardstick against which all other actions are evaluated, from infrastructure investment to communications and promotion. This in turn leads to one of the holy grails of branding which is consistency.
IMPORTANCE OF CONSISTENCY
Consistency is vital because the customer judges a brand by how it behaves, not by what it says. This is the primary reason for why 'living the brand' or 'living the brand values' is so important. To be successful, no brand can say one thing and do another. A brand represents a promise to its audience. If that promise is broken by inconsistent or contradictory behaviour, the bond of trust that a brand must build, based on delivering its promise, will be broken. The brand will be weakened and can eventually die. If a place brand promises to offer an experience of authenticity, tranquility and refuge unspoiled by the encroachments of the modern world it cannot decide to build high rise apartment buildings, open a chain brand hamburger restaurant on the main street or introduce neon billboards to its street architecture. Without a brand, any of these developments might be considered entirely rational. With a brand as a yardstick of evaluation, the outcome might be quite different and certainly more rational.
Brands are built over time, sometimes decades. It is the cumulative effect of thousands of positive interactions between visitors and the place they are visiting that will result in a collective audience opinion that the place or destination is meeting or (hopefully) exceeding their expectations by delivering what the audience has been led to expect.
BRAND ARCHITECTURES AND PORTFOLIOS
It is rare for a destination or region to be so homogeneous that a single positioning statement is considered capable of covering the complexities and range of all the visitor experiences it offers. It is at this point that brand strategies start to talk about 'lead' or 'attack' brands and the case for some sort of brand hierarchy starts to emerge. The reason for this can be traced to the familiar but erroneous preoccupation with asset-driven branding instead of visitor-led branding. The more a destination emphasises its physical, cultural and historical assets, the further it is likely to stray from a meaningful brand architecture.
The process, as the first article in this series stressed, starts with as focused a definition of the ideal visitor as possible. The region or place may have traditionally attracted a large family audience but informed analysis might suggest that their current and future revenue potential fall far short of alternative visitor segments. It might not take much analysis at all to recognise the impact of the family market on tourism facilities and infrastructure and to decide whether further investment in such infrastructure is consistent with the long term goals of the region. The brand expert William Arruda states that 'focus is the key. Although it seems counterintuitive, the smaller you make your target market, the greater your chance of success.' This precept is one of the hardest for any brand consultant to gain acceptance of and for any public or private sector organisation to accept. The core belief seems to be that if your target audience definition does not include a full spectrum of audience segments, those that are not included will abandon you overnight and will be lost for ever. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The converse is more often proven. The more narrowly an audience is defined and the brand promise is tailored to their needs, wants and desires, the more likely a product, place, destination or enterprise will be to successfully differentiate itself and to attract a broad and devoted following. The reason for this apparent contradiction is rooted in the need for all branding to look at the attraction of a product or place through the customers' or visitors' eyes. Traditional reliance on projecting a purely rational response and accepting this as the basis for motivation and marketing is no longer valid.
BRAND ARCHITECTURES BASED ON EMOTIONAL FULFILMENT
More so than in many product categories, the emotional component of the decision process in choosing to visit one destination in preference to another is likely to be at least as important as the rational component. The emotional component of a decision process is almost always involved with the way in which it makes the visitor feel. It is the experience of the visit, rather than the specifics of physical attributes that must be probed if brand positioning is to be successful. How does standing in the knave of soaring cathedral architecture make a visitor feel? What emotions does it evoke and, vitally, is there some cross-over of any these emotions to the feeling a visitor gets when faced with the soaring grandeur of a mountain landscape or the drama of coastal cliffs?
If a place or destination understands the emotions that are involved in reaction to the experience surrounding a visit to its inventory of physical attractions and historical icons, the design of any potential brand architecture takes on a radically different dimension. The framework of such an architecture changes the emphasis from the physical geography and asset attributes to an emphasis on experience and emotion. With the assistance of TEAM, the South West region of England has lately changed its whole tourism architecture to address a new set of 'brand clusters' based on the experience of the visit and the emotional context of this experience. To quote from South West Tourism's strategy document:
'These brand clusters define the sort of
holiday our customers want in terms of
the experience they are looking for. For example,
there is the 'sheer indulgence' cluster
which is characterised by fine dining,
pampering, treats, luxury and celebration.'
It is not difficult to imagine the interesting and formerly disparate inclusions that might come together under the single brand umbrella of 'sheer indulgence'… from food to festivals and spas to up-market self-catering cottages.
Such reasoning is the basis for sensible brand architectures and brand portfolios. Rather than thinking along the lines of 'superior' brands and sub-brands, the starting point should be that all brands are equal within a destination framework. Who is to say that the quiet enjoyment of solitude is any less motivating an emotional trigger than the excitement of immersion in a night time culture?
It is reasonable to consider experiential destination brands under some kind of imaginative 'umbrella' brand provided that the umbrella brand genuinely contributes a relevant context to the experiential brands. Even the word 'under' describing the relationship of a destination brand to other experiential brands in the architecture can be misleading. It could be that the 'umbrella' is less of an overarching brand concept and more of a signature brand in the context of a seal of approval or authenticity.
COMMUNICATING AT THE EMOTIONAL LEVEL
Once a place or destination has taken the giant step of narrowly defining a target audience and crafting a brand promise to address their emotional needs in addition to their rational response, the task then becomes one of getting the message across without undermining the ground-breaking effort that has brought the destination to this point. There remains the temptation to fall back into the old ways and to talk about the destination as a place rather than as an experience.
Once a place or destination has worked with its brand consultant to create a brand positioning and a brand architecture that is responsive to what the ideal visitor wants, it pays great dividends to use this same expertise to evaluate the communications programme that emerges. All too often, a brilliantly conceived brand strategy can be undermined by a failure to communicate from the visitor's perspective. Advertising and collateral materials revert to objective attribute claims and descriptions rather than promoting subjective visitor experiences.
It is particularly important in today's competitive environment that any paid communications programme retains the essence of differentiation contained in the brand positioning statement. Communication must also strive to promote the experience, not the place. Long copy isn't necessary in a world where all the information anyone could want is available on the web. Extravagant claims, or too great an emphasis on 'us' rather than on our ability to provide what 'you' want will undermine the credibility of any communications campaign.
COMMUNICATING TO A SCEPTICAL AUDIENCE
Credibility in advertising is an increasingly elusive goal. The point was made earlier that destinations are judged on how they behave, not on what they say. A smart advertiser recognises that most commercial communication is delivered to a highly sceptical audience. Advertising of any kind is suspect. Far better to use the authority of public relations and the intrigue of brevity than to try and get across a complex message through advertising. To get the advertising communication right takes great skill so the choice of advertising agency is an important one where previous destination experience is often a disadvantage. Just like the brand promise itself, the communication needs to be crafted around what visitors want and how the emotional experience of a destination can fulfil their desires. Communication should avoid at all costs promoting from the perspective of the destination.
Once again, a destination's messages must be consistent across all media and all touch points with past, present and potential visitors. It is still true that first and last impressions are disproportionately significant in a visitor's experience. My company pioneered the abolition of the reception desk in the resorts of our Caribbean hotel clients since the administration of signing in was a detrimental experience with which to start an idyllic Caribbean sojourn. Would that we could have persuaded ministries and tourist boards to revise entry and exit procedures in a similarly visitor-friendly fashion! The point is made to illustrate the legion ways in which a destination brand's values are communicated to visitors and the importance of consistency in all areas over which some element of influence can be brought to bear.
COMMUNICATING THROUGH PERSONAL CONTACT
Consistency of communication across these touch points is vital to the integrity of the brand. The human contact element of communication is often overlooked while the emphasis is placed on logotype rules, type fonts and colour schemes. These are important but they are a relatively small portion of the overall communications contact with the visitor much of which occurs face-to-face, face-to-phone or keyboard-to-website.
A future article in this series will re-visit the topic of advertising communication, brand names and slogans and how the need to 'be as you say you are' extends into this realm as vitally as it does into actual human behaviour.
THE BRAND AS BLUEPRINT
These articles have alluded several times to the ability of a brand to act as the yardstick against which a great many other decisions should be measured. One of the primary reasons that branding in the business world has become such a high profile discipline is its ability to act as a blueprint for all corporate activity in a way that was seldom possible, or even deemed necessary, before the focus of sales turned from product to customer.
One mistake that detractors of the brand as blueprint frequently make is to treat the 'blueprint' as a set of rules rather than a set of values. If brands were rules, it would be difficult to reconcile the attraction of modern high technology industries with a destination positioning which relied on unspoilt natural and cultural heritage. Whereas, in point of fact, there is nothing contradictory in a destination that offers the experience of the way it always was and the idea of new nuclei of technology, endeavour and sustainable growth. Just because a population may be portrayed as open, honest and welcoming in the style of their forebears, does not have to mean they are ill-equipped to work and compete successfully in the modern world. Possessing modern skills within a context of enduring values can be a highly desirable combination.
Most tourists would rather experience a genuine environment that is not totally dependent on their patronage but is capable of leading a life of vitality and innovation without destroying the beauty, history and culture that attract current visitors to the preserved panoply of its past.
The brand as blueprint can have thoroughly practical applications if they are approached as values rather than rules. Urban regeneration projects are occurring all over the world from Havana to Blackpool and Plymouth to Belgrade. In every case, one of the prime motivations for such regeneration is to increase tourism revenues. Each city and town has a vision or mission statement, each believes it is following a grand plan and each starts its quest for brand recognition after the majority of decisions have been made on what will be built where. How much easier the planning decisions would have been if there had been the conceptual blueprint of a brand and its values against which to evaluate the merits of different schemes for waterfront development, the emphasis for city centre retail environments and the leisure facilities mix. A brand positioning statement at the outset could provide the guidance for all such decisions which would be built carefully to reflect the needs, wants and desires of both inhabitants and visitors. A 'vision statement' says that 'this is what City Hall has decided'. A brand positioning statement says 'this is what you told us you would like'. Decisions emanating from the latter approach are a great deal easier to defend than from the former… and more likely to stand the test of time.
This third article in the series on Destination Branding has tried to demonstrate how much of the work of brand development can be made more productive by starting with as clean a slate as possible.
The old ways of cosmetic branding - attaching names and symbols to physical attributes to make them more attractive to potential visitors - has little to do with branding as it is practised today.
This article has looked at the process and benefits of contemporary strategic branding and its impact across all facets of a destination from infrastructure development to public behaviour. Strategic branding is a vital tool for competing successfully through meaningful and compelling differentiation. The article recognises the challenges faced by many DMOs and NTOs in following the focused dictates of audience definition and brand promise while addressing the broad spectrum of constituencies that most public sector organisations believe they must satisfy.
* * *
The fourth article in this series will discuss the lifetime value opportunities of visitor communications and customer relationship management, the role of public / private partnerships in communication and brand behaviours and will include some observations on brand identity expression.
If you've found this master class of interest and would like to read the first two articles in the series, click here to view the first and here to read the second.
George Whitfield is a leading tourism and brand strategist for TEAM, Tourism Enterprise and Management. George can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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