I’ve always had a huge problem with destination branding.This problem, this “dis-ease’ always flares up when I attend World Travel Market where the end result of millions of dollars spent on branding is experienced as an homogenous, coma inducing mass of impressions that blur into sameness.

Treating places with their complex geography and history the same way you would treat a box of corn flakes, cars,  or a range  of hair products  always seemed part of the cheapening process that turned places into commodities.

In 2005,  I joined the Canadian Tourism Commission towards the end of a very long branding exercise conducted by a former mentor and friend, Jean Chretien who, after touring this vast country, declared that distilling Canada’s complexity into a brand was impossible. He realised that it’s the visitor and resident who express the essence or personality of a place through their own experience and it is this approach that allows that personality to breathe. Canada’s “brand” is less of a statement about Canada as it is an invitation to the visitor. “Keep Exploring” has worked well because it affirms Canada’s intrinsic “explorability” and subtly suggests that the visitor will find no ends of ways to do just that in such a vast and diverse place as Canada. The guest and host jointly define the brand for themselves out of their encounters with each other.

Simon Anholt rose to fame with the notion of place branding but even seven years ago, when I met him briefly in Ottawa, I sensed he feared he may have let a genie out the bottle and his ideas would be misinterpreted. In the introduction to Places Identity & Reputation, written in 2009, Anholt has this to say:

Nations may have brands – in the sense that they have reputations, and those reputations are every bit as important to their progress and prosperity in the modern world as brand images are to corporations and their products – but the idea that it is possible to ‘do branding’ to a country (or to a city or region) in the same way that companies ‘do branding’ to their products, is both vain and foolish. In the 15 years since I first started working in this field I have not seen a shred of evidence, a single properly researched case study, to show that marketing communications programmes, slogans or logos, have ever succeeded, or could ever succeed, in directly altering international perceptions of places……

It is public opinion which brands countries – in other words, reduces them to the weak, simplistic, outdated, unfair stereotypes that so damage their prospects in a globalised world – and most countries need to fight against the tendency of international public opinion to brand them, not encourage it. Governments need to help the world understand the real, complex, rich, diverse nature of their people and landscapes, their history and heritage, their products and their resources: to prevent them from becoming mere brands.

Quite an irony isn’t it, then,  that one of the world’s foremost brand experts/proponents should, when it comes to places, be suggesting that brands – developed in the traditional way – don’t work?  If a country or region wishes to be understood it is advised to encourage their visitors to experience the “real, complex, rich diverse nature of their people and landscapes, their history and resources, to prevent them from becoming brands. ” So if it is about personality and reputation, then the best thing would be to encourage both visitor experiences and visitor-host encounters to take place in different settings and then let participants in those encounters tell their story.

That’s why this post lingered in the draft box few a few days. I was positively distracted by a link to StoryMap and, ecstatic to have found another example of peer to peer marketing,  I penned my last post Tourism By the People, Of the People, For the People  etc which proved to be the most popular I’ve written so far.

It’s also why I love Air New Zealand‘s series of videos that express the human side of New Zealand and its personality so much more effectively than any standard branding exercise. Have a look at the series called “The Kiwi Sceptics” – I’ve found 4 Episodes so far, here’s the first.  Not only is it great to see an airline generating interest in a place as a means of selling seats and aligning its self image and personality with that of the country, but also great to see that “sense of place” as  expressed through the eyes of hosts, visitors and hobbits alike.

As more DMOs wean themselves off a command & control mindset,  the telling of stories that reflect the personality of a place as experienced by the story teller will become the preferred medium and everyone can engage with that.

With over 10 million views & rising, Air New Zealand’s humorous new safety video made with cast, crew and producer of the Lord of the Rings conveys the humour and imagination of Kiwis and offers a more compelling invitation than any branding exercise. It’s time to let the creativity of the people in the host community rip; get up front and personal; and like Paul Hogan in the famous “shrimp on the barbie” ads actually invite us to come down and experience the place for ourselves and then use the latest technology and channels to share our experiences.

Quick postscript before you check out the antics of Air New Zealand’s zany crew – if you want another example of what happens when people are enabled to extend the invitation in their own way, then keep a close eye on what I consider to be the most innovative, disruptive company in the travel space today – Airbnb whose new “Neighbourhoods” program has enormous implications for the role and future of DMOs – but more on that later.

Other Relevant Posts

Tourism Of the People, By the People, For the People

How Vancouver’s Community Rescued its Brand

If branding were left to  engineers

Whose Place is it Anyway?

It’s Not Social Media, It’s Social Business

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