The image above has nothing to do with tourism branding. Most photos for these articles are unrelated to the topic; I just pick photos I like. This one is a photo I took in Huntington, WV a month or so ago. I have no idea why it was there, there was no hotdog restaurant nearby, but I’m utterly fascinated by it. I could look online for an explanation but it would kill the suspense.
Over the years of working in the tourism space, I’ve learned a lot about how to develop, nurture and promote destination brands. Some lessons I’ve learned can support a book while others would be hard to fill a full blog post. I guess I could write an article about each of these below — and I may at some point.
1. No brand is ever “ownable”.
I used to hear that word a lot when talking about tourism branding and it’s always wrong unless you’re talking about trademarks. That’s the closest you get to owning a brand. The truth is that you will never really own the most powerful part of your brand: people’s connection to it. It lives in the hearts and minds of those that have experienced it first-hand. The experience could be a disruptive pop-up on a new site, or it could have been a honeymoon they’ll cherish for the rest of their life. Either way, that is their perception and the feeling they get when they think of your community. But, while a brand is nothing more than a perception, that doesn’t mean you can’t affect it. You can improve how people discover, interact and experience your destination. That is what tourism branding and brand management are and by looking at them in that way, your attention goes to where you can impact the brand the most.
2. Find your Raison d’être
Every community has a reason that it exists. Many times, it was founded for its strategic location many generations ago but the culture that has developed over time has, in and of itself, become its reason to exist. I can’t count how many cities and towns I’ve visited and each one has unique events (not just fall festivals and Fourth of July fireworks), traditions, values, and personalities. The more clearly a community differentiates itself by promoting those qualities, the more compelling it is to the type of people it wants to attract. For example, one client of ours is one of the few predominantly waterfront towns in Northern Virginia, so that was worked into their brand to set them apart. Another client has a rich history of spas and alternative medicine, so their brand was built in part on that history.
3. Be honest – even when it’s painful.
The truth about your brand should be surprising, and probably a bit painful. In tourism branding, there should be facts that you discover that don’t jive with your own perceptions. That’s how it’s supposed to work — getting away from egos and biases and removing the rose-colored glasses to see your community as others do. Ideally, you should be able to view your destination three ways: as a firt-time visitor, as a member of the community, and as an internal stakeholder (you). The Venn diagram that forms when you review those three perspectives is the core of an authentic brand. It’s not all going to be good news but don’t shy away from the criticisms. Instead, look at them as opportunities to improve your community.
4. Don’t compare.
Starting down the path of looking at other communities as points of comparison will surely lead to a few undesirable consequences. You’ll begin to see them as competition instead of possible collaborators. You’ll fall into the mindset of copying their approach, robbing you of any authenticity you’ve built for your own brand. Most importantly, you’ll take the attention away from where it really needs to be: within the boundaries of your own community. The answer to creating an enduring brand can only be found within the community itself. When we work with destination clients, very little attention is given directly to researching nearby cities. Most of the time we do, it’s because our survey respondents have mentioned those cities an overwhelming number of times. This is a sign that the community has already begun comparing itself to others and inward focus — building civic pride, community excitement, etc. — is needed.
5. Position through pillars.
For us, tourism branding relies heavily on the development of two important parts: the personas and the pillars. Understanding your audience sets allows you to develop your visitor personas. Once you know your visitors, you can then identify that limited set of categories that attract them: your brand pillars. I often explain brand pillars as the 4-5 qualities of your community that best encapsulate the entire brand experience. Individually, the same pillars may be found elsewhere, but the combination of those pillars and the way they’re presented should provide an experience that’s both hard to replicate anywhere else and true to your community. The pillars drive your unique positioning, tell a story no other destination can, and support a brand that accurately and effortlessly represents your community.
6. Do your homework.
Tourism branding is not a one-time exercise with a defined end. It’s an ongoing process of discovery and re-discovery. Just as recent years have taught us, our visitors’ needs and desires are in constant change. If a destination takes its focus away from that change, only evaluating the brand when people want a new logo, then that brand will certainly lose its impact. Think of your connection with your audiences as a healthy relationship (marriage, friendship, whatever): you need to give it the attention it deserves in order for it to grow. This doesn’t mean sending out community surveys every year (I wrote an article about that, too), but it does involve conversations with your hoteliers, restaurant owners, and other merchants. It involves keeping an eye on your online engagement, content popularity, social listening, and more to make sure that you know what matters to your audience right now — not six months ago.
7. Don’t ignore economic development.
For smaller communities, it can be a challenge to balance resources between tourism and economic development. But it’s important that you do. I’ve seen cities that have chosen to lean one way or the other and it never works out for the community. Think of it this way: economic development brings in new businesses. Those businesses need visitors brought in through tourism efforts. Without one to support the other, growth is stalled or, in many cases, reversed since either visitors find nothing to do, a community is in disrepair from poor investment, or a business goes under because there wasn’t the customer traffic to support them. I see both of these departments as equals and you need both — even if they’re in the same department, as is often the case in smaller destinations.
8. Make plans and stay true to them.
One of the many things I like about working in tourism is the level of creativity that people have in this industry. Coming up with new campaign ideas and goals throughout the year is not a challenge. The real challenge I see is in sticking to the goals that were written into the current year’s plan. Perhaps it’s because there was some disappointment in results early on. Maybe tracking goal progress isn’t the most exciting part of the job. Whatever the reason, staying on top of goals can be an issue. What can make it easier is being clear about what those goals are — quantifying a result and assigning realistic timelines and resources to the plan. I’ve learned that the more exact I am about a goal, the more thought I give to its possibility, and the more often the goal is actually reached. Using the SMART Goals framework is a good start, and it’s one that I often use in our consulting and planning sessions.
9. Bring stakeholders together early.
To be successful in your work with tourism branding, and to avoid unnecessary issues along the way, it’s important to get input from your local stakeholders early in the process. By “stakeholders”, I include elected officials, department leaders, community leaders, and so on. Some stakeholders want to be heavily involved in the process but the vast majority don’t. However, they do want to be heard and feel like they played a role in the brand’s development — to have some ownership in the process. This is easily achieved by including them in the research phase; getting their thoughts and perspectives during this time and making that input a part of the initial strategy. You’ll notice that tourism branding is much smoother as you go along since most stakeholders will be satisfied, knowing that their contribution has been made part of the initial process.
10. Be easy on yourself.
Destination management isn’t without its roadblocks — and they seem to be everywhere: an angry shopkeeper that doesn’t agree with your plans, an article in the local news about someone doing something naughty, a rogue pandemic, or maybe you’re currently finding out that everything you set out to do this year was a bit too much and you’re feeling defeated. With all of the fun that can come of it, this job can be tough at times. The vast majority of visitors bureaus and tourism departments are woefully understaffed and often expected to accomplish far beyond their capabilities. As we enter the end of this year, be easy on yourself when you plan out next year. Take a look at what you were able to accomplish, cut out the stuff that didn’t meet expectations, and replace them with new ideas. Try not to add more to your workload — substitute instead.