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Destination Brand Strategy Can Be More Than You Think

Destination Brand Strategy

I promise that this story is relevant to brand strategy. Just bear with me.

A few years ago, I spent about a week in Prague. When I returned stateside, my first story wasn’t about Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, or any of the “must-see” sights. Those spots were nice but I would tell of this experience in a small, dimly lit whiskey bar named Al Capone’s (that’s right, like the American gangster).

My brother and I decided to pop in and grab a beer. While sitting at the bar, we saw the bartender making these insanely complex cocktails. One drink got my attention, so I asked the bartender what that drink was.

It was an Old Fashioned.

I had never seen that much skill go into such a typically simple drink. I ordered one for myself and it was the most amazing cocktail I’ve ever had. I’ve tried to recreate it with no luck. I’ve realized that if I want that drink again, I must go back to Prague. And I might. It was that incredible.

The reason I tell that story is to identify something that happens every day but many local governments overlook, and it’s at the very core of destination branding and what branding is.

A brand is an impression in the minds of those aware of your existence. It’s never something you own – you can only influence it. My experience in Prague wasn’t shaped by a logo. I wasn’t brought to Prague by a fancy ad. I was attracted to Prague (and then, Munich) by the culture that I knew was there and the experiences I had heard I could have. I had a unique experience that I share with other people. The cycle repeats, and people are encouraged to go check it out.

Many of the RFPs we receive at Imagine mention “brand strategy” but the deliverables are simply a logo, brand guidelines, and a tagline.

This isn’t a brand strategy – it’s brand image, and brand image is worthless if it’s not performed with an objective understanding of the locality’s culture, personality, vision, or people. It’ll also fail if it doesn’t garner buy-in along the way. If your spankin’ new logo and tagline aren’t adopted by your community, then it’s not really a true brand, is it?

A destination brand strategy needs time to develop – far more time than product or service branding. There are many more moving parts like other government agencies, local businesses, business groups like chambers of commerce, community groups, and so on. It’s vital to evaluate the experience through the eyes of the visitor and there are a lot of things that can derail their experience, including:

  • Availability and convenience of parking
  • Wayfinding signage
  • Friendliness of local business frontline staff
  • Variety and hours of businesses
  • Website experience
  • Event calendar
  • Photography/videography
  • Social media activity

and so much more.

A true brand strategy recognizes the composition of the community and the existing brand landscape. It then identifies key audiences, develops brand messaging for each, and then considers the visual identity or brand image.

Fast-forwarding to the fun stuff so you can slap a logo on a water tower doesn’t solve any issues. In fact, it can create new ones like upset residents questioning how their tax dollars are spent, and the media wave that can come from that backlash. Businesses won’t feel connected to it, so they won’t promote it. The supporting messaging and visuals that really tell the story aren’t there – or they’re not aligned, so the communication isn’t there.

These are all reasons to approach brand strategy the right way (sometimes thought of as the hard way) so that it’s authentic, adopted by the community, and relevant to the visitors and businesses you want to attract.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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