Forget branding – let people, place & personality shine through

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

4 Responses to “Forget branding – let people, place & personality shine through”

  1. You really make it seem so easy along with your presentation but I to find this topic to
    be really one thing which I feel I would never understand.
    It kind of feels too complicated and extremely vast for
    me. I’m taking a look ahead in your subsequent publish, I’ll attempt to get the hang of it!


  2. I completely agree with you and with Simon Anholt’s view that a nation brand needs to be supported by reality. Otherwise it will be hollow, cheap and lacking integrity, or even worse, a complete joke, just like a poorly branded shampoo or other commodity. That’s why countries need to support their branding efforts with an honest, transparent and wide-ranging public diplomacy strategy.

    I’m especially interested in the nation branding efforts of Qatar, a country with vast wealth and some clever nation branding ideas, but a social and political reality fraught with problems that contradict many of its efforts. I wrote a recent article exploring these ideas about Qatar:


  3. tourismbusinessmagazine Reply November 18, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    HI again Anna, this again is a wonderful post and rather than do a news story on it ( as I did with the Irish story) would you be happy for me to run it as an article from you. We can put a link to consicioustravelblog at the bottom too… would that be okay? It just seems so relevant for New Zealand and discussions that are ongoing here around the 100 % Pure brand.

    Thanks again


    Annie Gray | Publisher |Tourism Business Magazine | Ph 027-278-1183 | PO Box 32-186, Auckland | Twitter: @tourismbusiness | Facebook: Tourism Business Magazine


  4. Simon Anholt’s observations are right on the money: “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”.

    However, my experience has been that many DMOs – perhaps most – have little idea how to go about doing what Simon is describing, have never been exposed to this kind of thinking, or do not accept Simon’s premise to begin with.

    I can only comment on tourism in North America, where, in my view, the root of the problem is that the industry is dominated and controlled by marketers. In fact, the dominance and control of North America’s tourism industry by marketers is eerily similar to the dominance and control of North America’s automobile industry by marketers in the 1970s and 1980s – and we all know what happened there. Subtle, nuanced thinking about what I call “place interpretation” – the art of interpreting and “curating” a destination to reveal its unique sense of place to visitors – is extraordinarily rare.

    Anna, I couldn’t agree more: “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.”

    I don’t want a commodity when I travel, nor will the promise of a commodity induce me to travel. I long for places and experiences that are distinctive, authentic, and memorable. And I believe most other travelers do as well.


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