VisitNC and the billboard dilemma

The way some billboards have been executed have been the bane of my existence.

Years ago, I commuted to my advertising job in Bala Cynwyd, PA (just outside of Philadelphia) from Newark, Delaware, where the litany of forgettable billboards littered the side of the highway. My nightmares of this working odyssey continue today.

I’ll never understand why anyone would place a phone number on a billboard. Think about that for a minute. Who has the time, in a car, to jot a number down or remember it? Not me, and I’ll assume you don’t either.

How about those billboards with sentences of copy. It’s just asking for a roadway disaster? Nobody has the time to ingest an epistle while driving.

However, there are a handful of billboards that really work. Chick-Fil-A billboards always make me laugh. They are simple and memorable. McDonald’s typically has its ducks in a row when it comes to this form of media. And, most of the time, VisitNC ( leaves a positive impression on me.

That is, until its recent campaign.

A billboard from VisitNC shows a common problem.

Take a look at the following billboard for VisitNC:

What are you going to do? Log onto VisitNC while driving?

Know this, VisitNC has made some of the finest advertising in its past. Like this print ad:

This is a nice VisitNC ad. For an ad.

Isn’t this beautiful? It’s simple minded and elegant. It makes North Carolina a place I am proud to live (although not its HB2 bill) and a state I want to explore.

This is why I am so critical of the VisitNC billboard. It’s not the same calibre of work. The art direction breaks a critical rule: seeing and saying. The assumption is that viewers of this ad won’t understand the idea that VisitNC is a site you can frequent to help you embrace the state of North Carolina and, in turn, remove yourself from that very technology used in the process of discovery as you “get lost” the state. Whew, kind of a convoluted singe minded proposition, huh? Instead, the art director has plastered a ridiculous iPad in the middle of the advertisement as to clue us into this mindset. This uglies an already stock looking ad, and forcefully beats a meandering idea in our heads.

Which brings me back to the wonderfully simple print ad. It’s about the destination. Not the process. While the billboard is all about the a process.

To truly understand your target audience you need to know what motivates them and why they are motivated to begin with. The motivation of those using is in having vested interest in exploring the state of North Carolina. That is all. It is not about the website that gives you ideas of what to do.

Marriott and Cuba

Marriott’s purchase of Starwood overcame a bid from a Chinese company with a $14.4 billion offer, with Marriott citing the Starwood Preferred Guest asset as the main reason for the buyout.

Don’t believe a word of it. While that database may have value, the real reason for the purchase is that Starwood became the first US hotel chain to be allowed entry into Cuba with its Sheraton, Westin and St. Regis brands.

Marriott will be first to market in Cuba, but will it become preferred?

An untapped market with, for now, exclusive entry? No wonder China’s Anbang offered $14.15 billion. What’s not to like?

Cuba, visited today by President Barack Obama, is a unique carrot to put in front of investors. It is the forbidden fruit, after decades of being an embargoed island nation for the US. Whatever your stance is on opening ourselves to it, the island nation represents a unique and enticing culture says unique food, music and history.

Once the doors are open, commercial interests are sure to sprint in like it’s Black Friday.

To be sure, Cuba tourism won’t be quite on par with the rule of Batista in the 50s when American companies basically ran the nation before Fidel Castro staged a successful revolution.

But Cuba still holds that kind of allure for many. It’s feels exotic and new, which is why Starwood was so desired by companies across the world.

To be sure, eventually, there will be others that will be allowed to set up shop in Cuba, even it takes years or decades. What Marriott has now is the first-to-market advantage that could be easily blown if Marriott doesn’t forge ahead in a meaningful manner.

Turning the Cuba advantage into preference.

It will surely get the financial bump it was looking for when it initially promotes the allure of Cuba, but there’s a chance to do so much more.

Too often, destination marketing is all about the destination and what it offers. That sounds like a fine strategy until you consider that it means, when others enter the market, the messages will soon become blurred among all the competitors. All can claim the destination. In that scenario, Marriott will eventually lose its first-to-market advantage.

No, Marriott needs to figure out how the Cuba visitor is defined. Are they adventurous? Are they always on the lookout for something new? Are they something else?

Marriott will need to answer those questions and build its Cuban tourism brand on that, not the destination itself. It’s tempting, of course, to make it all about Cuba because it’s so new to US tourists.

But that strategy will not work long term. Define the traveler, and the first-to-market advantage will grow into preference.

Destination marketing: Good isn’t enough

Last week I wrote about the potential brand benefits of Cuba as a travel destination, with its brand equity of the pre-Castro years making it forbidden fruit for new US travelers.

In that post, I mentioned that the destination and tourism category is overfilled with similar messaging, meaning there are few real destinations in the world that actually own something.

Some asked me for an example of a destination struggling with coming up with that differentiation. So I bring you, Jackson Hole.

You can see what the marketers of Jackson Hole are trying to do here. They are trying to own “big” in nature terms. That humans are in awe of the vastness surrounding Jackson Hole.

The problem is that the real takeaway (remember, viewers see ads in a snapshot, not as a deep examination) is that Jackson Hole is just like Vail, Aspen or any other ski resort. There is an attempt at an emotional cue, and it’s better than most, but I don’t think that’s what prospective visitors are going to take away from it.

Its theme of “There’s More to Winter” isn’t bad, but Jackson Hole has not linked it to the idea of vastness. It’s still about all the things you can do in winter. It’s still about product benefits, in the terms of the destination and tourism industry.

I point out Jackson Hole not to pick on it. I point it out because it’s systematic of the lack of courage from destination marketers. They don’t go far enough, dipping a toe into the lake of emotion without going all the way.

I’m not suggesting Jackson Hole (and others) go weepy. What I am saying is that the theme should match up with the message. I supposed you could make an intellectual argument that the vastness of Jackson Hole gives you something more to look forward to in winter, but instinctively, it’s still about skiing and other winter sports. That there’s more to do in Jackson Hole in the winter than anywhere else.

Nice try, Jackson Hole. But, like your competitors, you can do better. Because the problem with destination marketing isn’t bad marketing. It’s the only good.

The brand experiment of Cuba

Patria o Muerte, Venceremos! Now, I’m no Communist and I wouldn’t subscribe to Cuba’s national motto of “Homeland or death,” but the opening of the island nation to US travelers and business today is a reason to celebrate for those of us interested in destination brands.

If we think back to the pre-Castro days, Cuba was known for lavish hotels, sandy beaches, music, classic cars, food and, of course, cigars. It may still be like that, but we’ll get a better sense as more American tourists visit and US companies build business there.

Will it be like the old Cuba or some US version of it?

What will Cuba look like in the next decade?
What will Cuba look like in the next decade?

The political ramifications of it aside, the normalizing of relations with Cuba re-awakens the strong pull the nation used to have for many of us, especially with it only being 90 miles away.

It was a true destination, and the myth (or memory, for some) of it is something other destinations can learn from. Like many industries, the tourism and destination market is cluttered with similar messages: Fun, family, outdoors, sights, etc.

The struggles destinations have is in finding what makes them truly different, whether that’s important and how that defines visitors when they visit. Most try to be everything to everybody. As most of us know, that means you are for nobody.

I can only think of a few destinations that really own something. Las Vegas owns sin. Paris owns romance. Cuba once owned adult, although not in the sense of responsibility. Cuba was about tasting the fine things of life exotically, like a rich gangster.

I suspect there will be an initial rush to check out Cuba and the tourism industry there will prosper based on the myth and memory of what it used to be pre-Castro. The fascinating stage will come after the development. Will it seize the place it once had in our consciousness (as a tourist destination, not as a Castro-ruled Communist country)? Or will it become so homogenized that it fails to own anything and becomes another destination lost among all the rest?

Why is it news when Atlantic City announces the closing of the Showboat Casino?

Atlantic City needs to think of itself as a destination.

This is an example of a failure all around. Think about it. Atlantic City is trying to reinvent itself once again. Have you heard this story before? I know I have.

As the number of casinos in this world-famous resort is contracting once again, Atlantic City blames the decline in casino business on competitive pressures from legalized gaming (Atlantic City does not like to say gambling) in nearby states like Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Atlantic City missed its opportunity
Atlantic City missed its opportunity

This is Atlantic City. World-famous beaches seemingly a mile wide. A boardwalk that seems to go on forever with its wide wooden walkway frames. Cool breezes from the ocean all summer long, Salt Water Taffy (“the original Salt Water Taffy, either James’s or Fralinger’s depending on whose claim you care to embrace) and Taylors Pork Roll. The scent of popcorn, peanuts and peppers and onions on every breeze. The sound of the waves and famous old hotels and institutions like Dock’s Oyster House.

Yet the marketing folks at Atlantic City can’t compete with the likes of landlocked casinos in Pennsylvania and Maryland. New Jersey, in its arrogance, never invested in the town itself, leaving a decaying and dangerous neighborhood just a block away from the famous boardwalk and its glitzy casinos.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the Brigantine casinos on the other side of town, sandwiching an un-walkable and rundown series of abandoned buildings and poor residential neighborhoods. Atlantic City is no Vegas with its Strip and downtown and miles of desert wasteland. Atlantic City is a wasteland of man-made neglect bordered by the best nature can provide.

Atlantic City needs to reinvent itself for sure. It had everything one could ask for when the age of gaming opened with Resorts International decades ago. It had everything including a monopoly. Those in charge lived in the arrogance of a monopoly and never reinvested in the town itself and it acted like a monopoly when it pretended that gambling was an unmentionable.

If marketers can’t sell a casino environment in a real resort, they should find another line of work. Maybe the razing of the Traymore Hotel in the 70’s destroyed more than a memorable boardwalk view. Maybe it destroyed that city’s ability to understand what it really was. A destination.