People are cynical of brands, and often for good reason, but destinations must hold themselves to higher standards if they are to succeed.
As a certain Mr. Pop pointed out, in his own inimitable fashion in Cannes last week, marketing has a bad rep. It’s not hard to understand why: tasked with explaining to consumers why one brand is a better choice than another, marketers sometimes seek out ‘other’ truths that might be more convincing if the actual truth isn’t quite compelling enough. An occupational hazard, some might argue.
All of this means that even in this era of digitally-fuelled cynicism and transparency, it is still very hard to work out what’s real and what’s marketing smoke and mirrors.
Now consider destinations as brands. They are a very different proposition, and I would argue that they are some of the most exacting brands in existence. Our longstanding research into country brand strength, the Country Brand Index, shows that not all places qualify as ‘brands’, but those that do (by achieving above average scores across both ‘status’ and ‘experience’) have a measurable competitive advantage as more people want to visit and recommend them to others.
It was recently our great pleasure to attend the launch of our new brand for Jersey – the first public expression of a project that encompassed brand strategy and identity, along with a beautiful tourism marketing campaign developed by on-island agency, The Observatory. As the Jersey brand takes root, it seems a good opportunity to explore destination branding and what makes it such a ‘pure’ discipline.
The following key principles are elements of all good brands. But where other brands can get away with merely attempting to meet them (and sometimes falling short), destinations are held to higher standards: adhere, or fail.
1. BE YOU – because you can’t be something you’re not
Coca-Cola could, if they wanted to, change their colour from red to blue. They cold stop making fizzy soft drinks. They could start making smart phones instead. It would be expensive, and stupid, but the point is that they could (and for proof, look no further than the Pepsi Phone P1 available now in China).
A destination doesn’t have that luxury. Jersey could probably attract more visitors if it were more like the Maldives. But Jersey is not the Maldives, and it never can be. To quote that great sage, the Cat in the Hat, “there is no-one alive who is Youer than You.” Destinations, more than any other type of brand, must embrace what makes them unique.
With Jersey, the ‘youest’ thing about it is its ‘island-ness’. Though there are many island destinations all busily espousing their own features and benefits, Jersey’s key audiences (principally, for now at least, from Britain & Western Europe) are looking for shorter, more spontaneous opportunities to ‘come up for air’. Jersey is perfectly positioned to offer them a differentiated and relevant choice: we are all familiar with city breaks, beach breaks or country breaks, but 'the island break' is an ownable, rich and evocative encapsulation of a place that has all these things, and more besides.
2. BE HONEST – because the truth is there for all to see
In Jersey, there had previously been a focus on its southerly position, and a claim to be the ‘sunniest place in the British Isles’. Unfortunately, as one stakeholder pointed out, “that’s like saying you’re the safest place in Afghanistan!”.
There’s no denying that Jersey on even an average day is absolutely stunning, and, yes, you’re marginally more likely to encounter the sun in Jersey than, say, Morecambe. But if that’s your brand promise, then all a visitor needs to do is step off the plane on a day that isn’t so great – and Jersey gets its fair share of those too – and the story falls apart.
Weak destination branding fails to appreciate this. Hence ‘arrive and revive’ in Austria, the ‘stunningly different’ Czech Republic, or Lithuania’s shouty ‘See it! Feel it! Love it!’. At best, these are just generic. At worst, they are undermined by a visitor experience that falls short of the exaggerated promise.
That’s why we focused on the way Jersey makes you feel. It really is a special place, with a fascinating story, and the sense of rejuvenation, reconnection and revitalisation offered by ‘the island break’ is unmistakably real.
3. BE TOGETHER – because residents are your greatest advocates (or fiercest critics)
Residents are the critical component of a visitor experience. Other brands benefit from having the support of their employees but can survive without; with destinations, residents have to believe in your vision to have any hope of making it a reality and sustaining it over the long term.
If they are invited to participate, to shape the proposition, to work together and aspire towards a common vision, a place can achieve more than a traditional brand ever could. When it reflects the way they feel about their home, then you have a veritable army of advocates willing to spread and support your message.
Our CBI study and its sister publication, the Made In Report, have also shown that the impact of ‘Made In…’ products and services has a disproportionate effect on the reputation of a place. By galvanising local industry, efforts to amplify the brand via provenance will act as a catalyst for positive perceptions.
Conversely, if there is a disconnect between perceived and claimed image, the repercussions can be hugely damaging, more so now than ever before – as many destinations have learned to their cost.
All of this is why our initial exploration in Jersey was so inclusive; from interviews with a wide array of local stakeholders, to inviting the entire island to contribute their opinions digitally. This collaborative approach has added layers of depth and meaning to the launch campaign – beautiful films that capture the very essence of the island, ambassador films from the people who embody the island and its values, stunning virtual reality 360° fly-throughs (complete with branded VR viewers). It has helped #theislandbreak tobe picked up by a hugely diverse on-island audience and reach an estimated 500,000 twitter users within a week of launch.
This is all so important because it demonstrates that a great brand is so much more than a logo, and that it cannot work without the support and advocacy of the people who know it best.
As with branding in general, destination branding has to be both believable and desirable – but more than that, it must meet these requirements or risk failure. It has to be faithful to its DNA, honest about its experience, and inclusive of its resident advocates. This is what characterises great destination branding, and why, we would argue, it could just be the purest form of branding there is.
Alex is an experienced brand strategist who has worked globally on brand development, repositioning and innovation projects across an eclectic range of categories from pharmaceutical to oral care, beer & spirits to banking, food products to fuel retail. He is well versed in the world of consumer insight, and holds the belief that the majority of our behaviours, in relation to brands, are driven by our underlying values. It is in identifying and demonstrating these values that great brands achieve true consumer engagement and advocacy. He holds an MBA from the University of London which included a dissertation on place branding, and he enjoys putting that experience to good use in his work with FutureBrand’s country branding practice.