Tourism Destination Branding Complexity


Purpose - The paper proposes enhancing the understanding of the complex challenges inherent in the development of tourism destination brand slogans. Design/methodology/approach - Prior to completing a tourism marketing PhD, the author spent almost two decades working in the tourism industry, mostly in destination marketing organisations (DMOs). In this paper he laments a significant gap in the literature in the area of tourism destination branding, a field that has only attracted academic attention since the late 1990s. Findings - While interest in applications of brand theory to practise in tourism is increasing, there is a paucity of published research with which to guide DMOs. There has been relatively little discussion on the complexity involved in capturing the essence of a multi-attributed destination with a succinct and focused brand position, in a way that is both meaningful to the multiplicity of target audiences of interest to stakeholders and effectively differentiates the destination from competitors. Practical implications - The paper will be of interest to tourism practitioners with a vested interest in the marketing of their destination, as well as research students and supervising academics interested in destination marketing. Originality/value - The paper summarises six issues that make the application of branding theory to destinations a complex undertaking, and which are worthy of increased research attention.
This is the author-version of article published as:
Pike, S. (2005). Tourism destination branding complexity. Journal of Product &
Brand Management. 14(4): 258-9.
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Copyright 2005 Emerald
Tourism Destination Branding Complexity
Dr Steven Pike
Pike, S. (2005). Tourism destination branding complexity. Journal of Product &
Brand Management. 14(4): 258-9.
Prior to completing a tourism marketing PhD the author spent almost two decades
working in the tourism industry, mostly in destination marketing organisations
(DMOs). In this paper he laments a significant gap in the literature in the area of
tourism destination branding, a field that has only attracted academic attention since
the late 1990s. While interest in applications of brand theory to practise in tourism is
increasing, there is a paucity of published research with which to guide DMOs. There
has been relatively little discussion on the complexity involved in capturing the
essence of a multi-attributed destination with a succinct and focused brand position, in
a way that is both meaningful to the multiplicity of target audiences of interest to
stakeholders and effectively differentiates the destination from competitors. The paper
summarises six issues that make the application of branding theory to destinations a
complex undertaking.
Tourism branding, slogans, destination marketing organisations
Tourism Destination Branding Complexity
There is a dearth of tourism destination branding research in the academic
literature, with which to guide destination marketing organisations (DMOs). The topic
of branding first appeared in the marketing literature fifty years ago, and most of the
published research since this time appears to provide a valuable resource for
consumer goods marketers. As noted by Jevons (2005) however, “the bottom line
question that is often unasked is whether our understanding of what brands are, and
what branding does, much clearer as a result of all the research that has been
published…”. In this regard destination branding research has only appeared
relatively recently, with the first academic conference session convened in 1996, the
first journal articles appearing in the late 1990s, and the first book published in 2002.
This is in spite of formal destination marketing organisations having been in existence
since the late 19th century. The lack of research seems incongruent with suggestions
that the future of marketing will be a battle of brands, and that destinations are
arguably the travel industry’s biggest brands. Today’s travellers are literally spoilt for
choice of available destinations, and within crowded tourism markets, places are
becoming increasingly substitutable and difficult to differentiate.
The place name is in effect the destination brand, and yet in most cases will
not provide an explicit association with the position sought in the travel market(s).
Only on rare occasions has a place name has been changed to increase appeal to
travellers, such as in the case of Elston, which was changed to Surfers Paradise in the
1930s. More recent exceptions include an island in the Caribbean renamed
CuervoNation by the famous tequila brand owners, and another island changed from
Hog Island to Paradise Island to appeal to the cruiseship industry. While it would be
politically difficult, and many would argue inappropriate, for a DMO to influence any
official change of destination name for tourism marketing purposes (Pike, 2004),
simple brand associations have been used the to expand the place name for
promotional purposes. For example, Taupo and Ruapehu in New Zealand have been
labelled Lake Taupo and Mount Ruapehu by the local regional tourism organisations
(RTOs) to highlight their natural sources of comparative advantage. Likewise in
Florida, Lee County has been promoted as Lee Island Coast, and in Australia,
Queensland’s macro regions have been labelled with distinctive tourism names such
as Sunshine Coast, Coral Coast and Discovery Coast.
For the majority of destinations however, a slogan is a necessary public
articulation of a destination’s brand strategy. Almost every destination uses a slogan,
an indication they are obviously considered important, and yet published research is
almost non-existent. There have been many criticisms of destination slogans over the
years, best summed up in Gold and Ward’s (1994) suggestion that they fail to achieve
anything other than ephemeral indifference. In other words, the slogans are unlikely to
differentiate the destinations over time. Alas, few solutions have been proposed, other
than Richarsdson and Cohen’s (1993) USP recommendations. However, brand
positioning by destination marketing organisations (DMOs) is a complex and
challenging undertaking for at least six reasons.
First, and arguably most significant, destinations are far more
multidimensional than consumer goods and other types of services. To be effective,
positioning theory suggests that reaching the minds of busy consumers requires a
succinct message focussing on one or a few brand associations. Nowhere is this
challenge better highlighted than in the development of a seven word slogan that
encapsulates a destination’s diverse and often eclectic range of natural resources, built
attractions, culture, activities, amenities and accommodation. This is often reflected in
slogans that appear to attempt to cover everything, such as ‘Kenya – creation’s most
beautiful destinations, all in one country’ and ‘Ohio – so much to discover’. In other
cases the difficulty appears to manifest in slogans such as ‘Greece – beyond words’.
Rarely does a destination have a focused slogan such as in the examples of ‘Arizona
– Grand Canyon state’ and ‘Snowy Mountains – Australia’s high country’.
Second, the market interests of the diverse group of active stakeholders are
heterogenous. Counter to a market orientation where products are designed to suit
market needs, DMOs are forced into targeting a multiplicity of geographic markets to
attract a wide range of segments that might be interested in the existing and relatively
rigid products. Is one slogan, such as ‘Idaho – great potatoes, tasty destinations’ and
‘Slovenia – the grown place of Europe’ likely to be meaningful to all market
Third, the politics of decision making can render the best of theory irrelevant.
The issues of who decides the brand theme, and how they are held accountable, are
critical. Reliant on government funding, DMOs are evolving into public-private
partnerships, and the topic of who should be appointed board members makes for
interesting debate. There is often mistrust that tourism businesses represented on
tourism boards have unfair influence. In this regard the author witnessed one
domineering attraction manager influence an RTO board to change the destination
brand of five years, for no other reason than he had personally grown tired of it. This
decision was made in spite of research indicating the existing theme was starting to
gain traction in the destination’s closest and most valuable market. At another
political level, some DMOs, such as Louisiana and Valencia, have been legislated to
change advertising agencies on a regular basis, subjecting brand message consistency
to regular modification. Other destination brand campaigns have been derailed by
influential intermediaries, such as in the case of Morocco, when European tour
wholesalers forced the cancellation of a brand that did not fit their offerings.
Fourth, there is a fine balance to be struck between community consensus and
brand theory and a top down approach to destination brand implementation is likely to
fail. Critically, DMOs lack any direct control over the actual delivery of the brand
promise by the local tourism community. Without buy-in from these stakeholders the
strategy will flail. This initially occurred in the case of ‘Oregon – things look different
here’ (see Curtis, 2001), where regional tourism organisations initially resisted a
brand strategy imposed by the state tourism organisation. The host population also
interact with visitors and, particularly in resort communities, should therefore feel that
the destination brand represents their sense of place too. However, Henderson’s
(2000) survey found evidence to suggest the ‘New Asia – Singapore’ brand did not
appear to correspond with the experiences of local residents. Thus, while consumer
based brand equity is of more practical to DMOs than a balance sheet destination
brand value, there is also a case for the concept of community based brand equity to
enter the marketing vernacular.
Fifth, brand loyalty, one of the cornerstones of consumer based brand equity
models, can be operationalised to some extent by measuring repeat visitation through
a DMO’s visitor monitor programme. Staying in touch with previous visitors is a
powerful but untapped means of enhancing the destination brand, but DMOs have no
access to the hundreds of thousands of visitors’ contact details left at accommodation
registration desks. How then can a DMO practically stimulate loyalty by engaging in
dialogue with so many customers, in a meaningful way, as espoused in customer
relationship management theory?
Sixth, funding is often a continuous problem for DMOs, in both scale and
consistency. Even the largest DMO budgets pale in comparison to those of the major
corporate brands, with which they compete for discretionary consumer spend. Since
DMOs have no direct financial stake in visitor expenditure, they must continually
lobby for public and private funding. A successful brand campaign leading to
increased yields for local businesses does not translate into increased revenue for the
DMO. Indeed the reverse situation has occurred at destinations where funding has
been pulled by the government, such as in Colorado for example.
To summarise, will one brand positioning theme meet the needs of all market
segments, suit the business interests of all local tourism operators and encapsulate the
community’s sense of place? While there is a rich resource of brand theory, there is
has been relatively little published that addresses the complexity involved in capturing
the essence of a multi-attributed destination with a succinct and focused brand
position, in a way that is both meaningful to the multiplicity of target audiences of
interest to stakeholders and effectively differentiates the destination from contiguous
competitors offering the same benefits.
Curtis, J. (2001). Branding a State: the evolution of Brand Oregon. Journal of
Vacation Marketing. 7(1):75-81.
Gold, J.R., & Ward, S.V. (1994). Place Promotion. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons
Henderson, J.C. (2000). Selling places: the new Asia-Singapore brand. In Robinson,
M., Evans, N., Long, P. Sharpley, R.,& Swarbrooke, J. (Eds). Management,
Marketing and the Political Economy of Travel and Tourism. Sunderland: The
Centre for Travel & Tourism. 207-218.
Jevons, C. (2005). Names, brands, branding – beyond the signs, symbols, products
and services. Journal of Product and Brand Management. 14(2).
Pike, S. (2004). Destination Marketing Organisations. Oxford: Elsevier.
Richardson, J., & Cohen, J. (1993). State slogans: the case of the missing USP.
Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing. 2(2/3): 91-109.
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