I’d like to start this post with something that may be unpopular: a new logo, tagline or website won’t make much difference in driving tourism. Or economic development. Or much of anything, really. Yet, that’s what we see as the scope in most of the destination branding RFPs we receive. While the budget can play a part in what departments can expect from an agency, there can be a better use of that money. It involves addressing your brand image – not just its identity.
Let’s unpack the difference between the two. From there, we’ll determine which of those your community needs most and where you should focus your attention.
Brand identity is what your community is: your name, geography, economy, amenities, number of public restrooms…you get the idea. It also encompasses your ideals, culture, goals, and what type of destination you aspire to be. Often, this aspiration is where local governments and DMOs get hung up; they make the decision to amplify who they’d like to be and believe that a new reality will follow. While logical, it’s just a bit wrong.
Brand image is how your community is seen: the quality of your restaurants, the availability of parking, the cleanliness of your public restrooms… in other words, the brand experience. The reason why creating a new identity often fails is because the brand image (coincidentally the hardest and less exciting part) isn’t evaluated, monitored, and promoted properly.
Think of it this way: as a person, you have an identity. That includes things like your name, hair color, style, and so on. You also have an image, which is how people consider you. When we’re young, many of us try to change our identity by changing our hairstyle or the clothes we wear in an effort to impact our image. And as many continue to learn, it only goes so far.
For destination branding to work, you have both brand image and identity working together. Along with an attractive identity, you’ll need to address the brand image in a comprehensive way. This involves looking at every visitor touchpoint from your website and online reviews to the end of a visitor’s stay and beyond. If the brand image fails, no identity campaign can bring them back and you’ll be working increasingly hard for a decreasing number of one-time visits.
Branding Within the Customer Journey
In past articles and podcast episodes, I covered the five steps of the Customer Journey. Here are the links to the articles, but I’ll sum them up as they pertain to brand image.
This section covers many of the typical destination branding must-haves: an active Instagram presence, an attractive website, and consistent outreach. While always important, your brand identity plays its strongest role here as a way to get attention and start the process of attracting visitors to your community.
However, tourism marketing never happens in a vacuum. The experiences of past visitors through online reviews and hashtags can tell a different story if their experiences don’t live up to the identity you’re working to project.
In this second part, identity and image need to work hand-in-hand to make sure that the visitor follows through with their plan to visit. Once they’ve arrived, every touchpoint matters, from traffic getting into town, their impression as they walk through town, the proximity of lodging, even the volume in the middle of the night.
It doesn’t end until they’ve left town. That entire experience is now your brand image in their minds. How well you execute your brand strategy will determine whether they choose to come back – or even tell anyone about their trip.
When visitors have an extraordinarily good or bad experience, they share it with others. When they have a reasonable or decent experience, they don’t. To create vocal cheerleaders — the ones that post the positive reviews, tell their friends, share on social media — you need to work toward creating an extraordinarily good experience. This means looking at every touchpoint and asking yourself “what would make this step of the journey extraordinary?”.
At this point, you may be thinking that exceptional destination branding is all but impossible, especially if you’re a smaller city or town. But the opposite is often the case. Smaller destinations can more easily provide the best experiences since having fewer areas of opportunity can give you a clearer focus on what needs to be fixed. Bigger cities have bigger problems, as we’ve seen over the years with places like Boston, Atlantic City and, more recently, Minneapolis.
Take regular trips around town, mirroring the typical paths that your visitors take. Start outside of town and work your way in, seeing your destination through the eyes of a visitor. If you’re looking for more authentic feedback, bring a consultant or agency in on what we call a “destination immersion“.
Trace your visitors’ footsteps, first looking for the less-than-satisfactory parts of your area that need work (usually transportation, walkability, vacant storefronts, etc.). Address those, and then look for what is ordinary that can be extraordinary (your visitor center, public art installations, outdoor dining, scenic views). Boost the visitor experience in those areas.
When you have an authentic brand experience, move forward with the brand identity. That identity will perform because all of the promises made (implicitly or explicitly) will be fulfilled when people come to visit because the brand image will support it.