Destination Marketing: How Creating Preference Is All About Your Brand, Not Your Beaches

By Tom Dougherty

Destination Marketing is a Competitive Market

The stakes are vaulting for tourism destinations as they compete for share of wallet, and yet most tropical destinations continue to sell benign category benefits, playing a wasteful game of follow-the-leader. The root of their problem is how they view their brand. Brand is seen as another outfit to be managed rather than an offensive line.

floating surferTake a broad look at the category messaging, and you will see the same photos and lyrical text. White sandy beaches, blue skies, clear waters and friendly natives are a dime a dozen. Unless you are member of the marketing team or a cultural anthropologist, the unique identities are lost. Every destination looks the same. Certainly the advertising, images, and content are developed with the best intentions, but what really matters is what the target audience sees and believes for themselves. In this case, one destination sure looks a lot like the others.

What this indicates is that the battle for share of mind has empirically become the battle for share of voice (who spends the most and who costs the least). Brand is not designed to deliver “table stakes.” True brand equity delivers preference and margins. In the tourism market, we may ask whether it is brand or ourselves that fail to execute.

Without surprise, a good case can be made for the latter. Many destination and tourism departments are government run, which means that the conflicts of political pressures and safety often outweigh honest brand development. Keeping consensus amongst constituencies is as important as real brand development (even though everyone disputes this fact). What we want to say is often very different from what we should say.

The Desires of the Target Audience

The difference between what we truly want as opposed to what we actually do can be found in your target audience’s hearts. Great brand marketing begins with dispassionate analyses, and having this objectivity is near impossible to accomplish within ourselves. Proof of this can be found in the sister industry of cruise lines.

These behemoths of the seas are unencumbered with political pressures but still fall into the mire of undifferentiated claims. Unless you can create a preference for your brand at the same time you create a preference for the category, then you are asking your customer to make choices that are rational/economical rather than emotional/brand-related. It is impossible to “heal yourself,” and, as a result, brand development in the destination and tourism industry is virtually non-existent. Into the vacuum the target audience falls, and in the absence of REAL brand equity they create their own. There are only two reasons to invest in building a brand — to increase your preference or to increase your margins, and if your destination is not achieving both of these objectives, you have a business and not a brand. (Read our destination market study here)

A real brand promise

Real brand is not about attributes or reputation. Real brand does not reside in your fern grottos or barrier reefs or in your friendly natives or warm trade winds. Real brand is found in the self-descriptors of your target audience, and then it is supported by the specific amenities that you possess and offer to that audience. Your physical island or resort is not so different from the competitive set, but your customer should be considered to be. The consumer must feel deprived without your destination on their list of “must visits,” and they should require re-visits to your sandy white beaches long after they are familiar with your tourist attractions and places of cultural interest. (Read more here)

In order to reach the maximum brand potential for your destination, you must be in a position to challenge everything already in existence including the sacred cows and category absolutes. In the absence of such brand development and commitment, our current Caribbean neighbors and cousins will find their beaches quite solitary when the floodgate of Cuban tourism finally cracks. This kind of solitude is the sort of uncomfortable silence that no resort covets.

(Read a Case Study on Pinehurst here)

(Read about the changing Destination/Tourism consumer here)

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