Destination Branding: Find Your Unique Voice

Ask most tourism destinations whether or not they have a brand, and most would answer “sure.” In some cases, that’s very true. Mention Austin, San Francisco, Kansas City, or Portland, Ore., and you have a pretty clear idea of what makes each city distinctly unique (the last one being my hometown, I can say that we’ve had just a little help in crystallizing the brand characteristics of our fair city from a certain “Portlandia”).

But does your city, town, region or state really have a brand? Too often, the problem begins with a misunderstanding about what constitutes a brand. For some, they think a logo, slogan, ad, brochure or website is their brand. True, you may convey a brand through those vehicles, but it’s not the brand itself. The brand is that set of values and emotional connections that resonates and creates a relationship with consumers. In the end, it satisfies a need and makes one want to buy, support, or align oneself with your product or service – in this case, your destination. For consumer products, I like to say that a successful brand is one where you happily pay $75 for a $10 t-shirt because that garment conveys something about how and what you perceive yourself to be.



So, as a visitor destination, how do you ensure that you’re selling a brand that will engage your audience, and not just promote a perception you have of yourself? Believe it or not, this is very common with tourist destinations. The good news is it’s an easy fix if you’re open-minded and willing to start fresh. Here are five steps I like to use when helping a destination re-imagine its brand:

Take a look around

The first – and arguably the most important – step in creating or refreshing your brand is to take a look at what others like you are doing and saying. Too often, it’s much of the same old-same old. Coastal towns talk about the same beach, resort hotels push the same golf message, ski areas all chest-pound about their snow (yes, we got it … you’re a ski area, you’re supposed to have snow). You need to find that one thing or set of things that make you different. It could be your history, the family-friendliness of your programming, or your eco-culture. Whatever it is, embrace it, build on it, and make sure it’s a clear part of who you are at every touch point you have with consumers.

Let go of old beliefs

I was going through this process a few years ago with a client … a city located about 10 miles upriver from the ocean. In our branding outreach sessions, nearly all the local stakeholders were convinced that they were a “river town” not a “beach town.” However, our consumer research told us something different: the city was part of a beach experience. In the end, our brand didn’t rely on either, but it was an interesting lesson in how you might view yourself versus how your customers do.

Approach with fresh eyes

This one goes hand-in-hand with letting go of old beliefs. For the same city above, when it came time to introduce the results of our brand re-fresh, I wandered the streets with my trusty SLR camera, getting lost like a first-time visitor might. I recorded what I saw, which weren’t necessarily the usual spots you’d find in a brochure. As a fabric, it told a deeper and richer story, and helped me sell my recommendations because the client could see themselves in ways they hadn’t before.

Hone your view

Once you’ve seen some fresh perspectives, it’s time to start crystallizing. I begin by creating five “pillars,” the key foundation elements that integrate and support the essence of your brand (and make you unique). I use single words for the pillars, and then write a definitive supporting statement that brings them to life. You have to keep it real, because a brand built on manufactured qualities will quickly become transparent. Finally, I write a “manifesto,” a 300–400-word credo that establishes the voice, tone, personality and values of the brand. This is your touchstone, and everything that follows has to align with it. Whether it’s copy, a photo, logo, brochure, or website, you have to ask the question: “am I being true to our brand manifesto?”

Speak across all platforms

Now that you have this brand, guard it with your life. Everything – and I mean everything – you produce should consistently convey the essence of your brand. And, be creative.  For instance, for the city mentioned above, we ended up focussing on unique and local characters in our ads. So, when it came to create a Facebook page, rather than it being a generic city page, we made one of the characters the “personality.” It was just one more way to extend and support the brand.

4 comments about "Destination Branding: Find Your Unique Voice".
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  1. Mark allen Roberts from Out of the Box Solutions, LLC, February 25, 2013 at 2:01 p.m.

    Great advice,

    As I shared in my first book: branding backwards far too many people brand by default. They trust their market to define them and often what the market thinks is wrong or misses your true value.

    We must brand with intention ideally around your distinctive competence and as you say...guard it with your life. Don't "participate" in your market, "dominate" .

    You can receive a free download of my book on my blog page if you would like to learn more about branding.


  2. Bill Baker from TDM, February 25, 2013 at 5:46 p.m.

    Totally agree, Greg. I would add that for places to really reveal their place in the world, they must seriously evaluate their competitors. The other overlooked aspect of destination branding is in regard to product development and the need for constant investment and innovation to ensure that the place remains relevant in the future. I have outlined these concepts more fully in my book, "Destination Branding for Small Cities" Regards BB

  3. Gerseli Strelniek from GSME Consulting Services, February 26, 2013 at 9:58 p.m.

    I could not have said it better. Congratulations on your synthetic and to-the-point article. Now, if only politics and fear did not play a role in the choices clients make that damage their brands...

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 27, 2013 at 5:12 p.m.

    Absolutely. You also have quite a Grimm population in Portlandia that's not human. I see tour groups ;). Congratulations.

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