Building a country brand requires more than just a well executed advertising campaign


If you are responsible for a country or destination brand, read on.

As cheap air travel and the package tour (as well as the devaluation of the Spanish Peseta and the abolition of currency controls in the UK) helped jump start international travel in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the world was still a fairly predictable place and countries were, on the whole inhabited mainly by citizens of that country and not by the multicultural citizens living in most cities today.

Moreover, due to the social and economic structure of Western countries, consumers were only just beginning to have disposable income that allowed them to experience the concept of leisure time.

At the same time, mass media was becoming increasingly influential as consumers purchased more and more TVs and radios.

So, with more disposable income, more leisure time and the establishment of commercial television, it was now possible to reach large swathes of a population reasonably quickly and relatively inexpensively.

In this environment countries put their faith in creativity to build brands, hoping that an exotic image, tagline or promotion would resonate with prospects and increase visitor arrivals.

And generally, because of the cultural and social predictability of countries, the same message could be used to communicate with everyone.

Moreover, with few conduits to increasingly wealthy consumers who had more disposable income than ever before and with limited competition in the market place, this type of creative driven branding often raised the profile of countries enough to attract visitors.

Countries and destinations such as Spain, the UK, Kenya, Florida, Greece, The Algarve, Singapore and Italy as well as many other destinations used this approach. And in this mass market economy, mass media – TV, Print, Outdoor, with its huge reach, was the logical vehicle to enhance the impact of creative-driven branding with reach and repetition.

bemuda

italy

Early tourism ads worked because markets were similar, new, eager and easy to reach
Early tourism ads worked because markets were similar, new, eager and easy to reach

But that mass-market economy no longer exists. Today’s consumers are increasingly overwhelmed with those creative images, taglines and promotions. And many of the messages have become so similar that it is virtually impossible to differentiate one from another. And of course, consumers have also become fed up with countries failing to deliver on promises made.

Same images, sames messages = irrelevant

Despite this new world order, countries, agencies and consultants continue to try and build country brands by using ‘cool’ advertising, creative or symbolic logo’s with pretty colours, catchy taglines and so on.

But these activities are nothing more than advertising campaigns and do very little to build a nation brand. And even the one’s that have made us sit up, take notice and seek more information are more often than not soon forgotten or overtaken by a new campaign from a competitor destination or the recommendation of a friend.

But most worrying of all, these advertising campaigns lull countries into a false sense of security. ‘Visitor arrivals are up so everything is good in the world’. The problem is that an advertising campaign might draw the attention of visitors to a destination but it doesn’t build a destination brand.

An advertising campaign may be important but it is part of what should be a well researched and planned brand strategy that takes into account all brand related activities.

These include internal buy in and a thorough understanding of external stakeholder requirements for value and other elements such as content development, social media, PR and most important of all for a country, crisis management. Traditional communications pushed out across traditional and digital media, may still have a role to play, but they are not a total solution.

Sadly, too many countries and destinations have short cut the process to try and get their ads out quickly. This has resulted in the demise of the brand strategy. Yet failure to invest in such a brand strategy can be detrimental to the long term success of the brand.

A case in point. The Maldives has invested more than US$10 million in the last three years on advertising itself as a luxury destination. But in 2012, political turmoil saw arrivals from the lucrative European markets fall, with the UK registering a 12.2% drop. If it weren’t for a sharp rise in low yield arrivals from China, the Maldives would probably have registered a major drop in arrivals.

To the detriment of the country, participants or perhaps victims of the political turmoil in the Maldives called for a boycott of the tourism business and attempts by the new government to develop the tourism business are constantly thwarted by opponents.

One example was when the Twitter hashtag #sunnysideoflife (the official tagline) was hijacked and brochures entitled ‘The cloudy side of life’ threw scorn on tourism players and drew the readers attention to human rights abuses and police brutality against Maldivians.

This year has seen further negative press after a 15 year old girl raped by her stepfather and sexually abused by other men was sentenced to 100 lashes for having pre marital sex.

So far the Maldives government hasn’t responded, leading one to suspect they don’t have a brand strategy with a crisis plan to deal with such a situation. What is certainly true is that this complicated issue will not be solved with an advertising campaign.

In 2012 Jakarta initiated an advertising campaign across Asia in an attempt to attract visitors to the capital and largest city in Indonesia. The campaign was poorly planned, conceived and executed. You can read more about the Jakarta campaign here.

Based on the advertising campaign and the website, it is fairly safe to assume these two elements were not part of a brand strategy.

Does this ad make you want to get more information on Jakarta?
Does this ad make you want to get more information on Jakarta?
Lack of integration and poor content suggests little or no planning
Lack of integration and poor content suggests little or no planning

India is famous for its ‘Incredible India’ campaign launched in 2002. By 2009, India was spending US$200 million advertising the country. This iconic advertising campaign is still going strong and in November 2012 at the World Travel Market in London and to great fanfare, India announced a new advertising campaign headlined, “Find what you seek”.

Early 'incredible India' ads - excellent execution
Early ‘incredible India’ ads – excellent execution

Officially launched by the new Indian minister of tourism at a hotel in London in front of 400 guests, the new Incredible India campaign highlighted to consumers ‘that they will find whatever they are looking for from a holiday in India.’

The Minister of Tourism India launches the new Incredible India campaign, a week later 10 years of advertising were lost due to a lack of planning for disasters

It was also announced at the launch event that the goal of the campaign is to increase international arrivals by 12% annual till 2016.

Little more than a month later, in December 2012 in Delhi a woman was brutally gang raped and left for dead on a public bus. The story made headlines around the world.

And then in March 2013, a Swiss woman was gang raped whilst on a cycling tour of Madhya Pradesh and soon after, a British woman was attacked in Delhi and only avoided further suffering after jumping from a hotel window to escape.

Within a matter of weeks, tour operators were reporting a 35% cancellation rate from women and a 25% drop in all arrivals with multiple cancellations from the lucrative markets of Australia, the UK, Canada and the United States.

Much of the outrage toward these events is related to the treatment of woman in India and numerous stories that would not normally feature on international news are now making headlines globally including the stoning, arrests and murder of Indian women. None of these events will be addressed by advertising.

If you are responsible for developing a Nation, country or destination brand, don’t allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security over a ‘successful’ advertising and promotions campaign telling the world how great is your country or destination.

To build a strong brand amid increasing international competition and unforeseen circumstances that are carried across social media and possibly across mass media as well, destinations must have in place a well defined brand strategy that covers all potential scenarios and doesn’t just focus on communications.

A brand strategy has other benefits. Here are five more reasons for developing a brand strategy:

1) A brand strategy clearly defines the organisation values and promises and ensures stakeholders understand what is required of them to deliver on those promises and values. For a nation brand this internal branding is critical to the success of the brand.
2) Staying with the internal brand, lots of tourism boards and CVBs attend trade shows but if I had a pound for every time I’ve been to ITB or WTM and seen poorly trained personnel representing countries or states, I’d be a very wealthy man. Trade shows cost a lot of money. A brand strategy will ensure training occurs at the best possible time.
3) A brand strategy ensures the brand is ready for every eventuality, with a crisis plan to address issues such as those that have happened in India, the Maldives and most recently, Boston.
4) A brand strategy ensures all stakeholders are pulling in the same direction. If one state is targeting visitors at the same time as another state, resources are being wasted. A brand strategy will ensure integration and engagement, not individual tactics.
5) A brand strategy ensures time isn’t wasted on stand alone tactical initiatives implemented at the whim of a government servant or other person who should know better.

Far too many countries or destinations give the responsibility of building their brand to creative advertising agencies. These agencies are called advertising agencies for a reason. They do advertising.