Despite the years, the jobs, the Blackberries, $4.50 a gallon gas and Facebook, summer still means travel and vacations - especially to those with families. And taking a vacation means first choosing a destination.
Much like our old summer fantasies, vacation spots each have their own aura - their own brand. Destinations are not simply dots on a map but rather carry imagery, personality, and an expectation of certain kinds of experiences (products and services) and distinctive, often fragile reputations. Taken together, these brand elements speak appealingly to some holiday seekers and not to others. Much like CPG goods, it is the sum of both tangible and intangible brand impressions, not necessarily experience with the destination(1) itself, that can influence choice.
Put another way, from afar, even cities, countries, theme parks and resorts can be seen as "a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer" and thus can be measured according to standard brand metrics.
So what destination brands are appealing to Americans this year? Where are their fantasies taking them? To find out we tapped into The Brand Asset™ Valuator (BAV) - our powerful research tool. BAV is the world's largest study of brands and is based on an acknowledgement that competition for mindshare is fierce and crosses categories. Not only is Disneyland competing with Samsung mobile phones for customers, but Dollywood is competing with McDonald's for employees and affection. When we wake up in the morning our Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Oroweat slices beg for our attention while our Sharp television broadcasts images of San Francisco, promising a romantic vacation - with or without the kids(ii).
From among 55 destination brands in the U.S. database we learn that the strongest brands among Our Fellow Americans are those listed below. By strongest we mean those destination brands, that taken together score highest on The Four Pillars of Strong Brands and are the most Differentiated, Relevant, Esteemed and Known/Understood(iii)
No Costa Rica or Thailand here. Americans just aren't as interested in the exotic locations right now; they'd rather travel to a place that provides a fully-enclosed, yet almost other-worldly experience, or one that doesn't get them off the grid but provides a cosmopolitan experience. What all of these destinations have in common is in fact their ability to provide a varied mix of wholesome family entertainment, whether it's Mickey and Minnie or Broadway shows and Fifth Avenue shopping, in one easy-to-navigate location.
The top two brands - Disney World and Disneyland - indicate the proficiency with which Disney has driven home their brand values, decade over decade, and speaks to the relevance they retain in this age of wired parents and children. Disneyland - or World - remains the place where families can connect and share memorable experiences with children of all ages. It also provides an opportunity to exit the realm of reality and unplug from the day to day. After all, who doesn't love a talking mouse that makes us all feel like a kid again?
Whether the rising cost of fuel is to blame or the weak dollar, Americans would rather stay close to home than travel abroad. Cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are no more than a six hour flight away, and for parents lugging around Bugaboo carriages and crying children, this is ideal. Additionally, families with children of various ages benefit from cities because they offer an array of activities. Tweens have the possibility of meeting their favorite television star in L.A., while parents can discover historic landmarks in Chicago.
For a more worldly experience, the U.K. is the only international destination on the top ten, and it's a good thing they speak English. Often the destination for summer student exchange programs and the capital of European business, London is offers a global perspective, for a short flight from the United States' east coast and there is no language barrier. For those looking for a cultural change, this is the place.
Ok, all of this is so wholesome, you say. But, what about those of us without children, not necessarily caring about family-friendly destinations. What about those of us who are unmarried? Older? Younger? Richer? Poorer? Maybe demographics really are dead, but after checking the BAV for the most "fun and friendly" brands, the list remained startlingly constant. A great destination has strength and stature no matter who you are.
Most Fun and Friendly Destination Brands
Once again, Disney comes out on top. Way to go! Years of sustained brand communications, supported by a superb experience, pay off. In fact, on every one of our four pillars and 48 attribute measures, Disneyworld emerges as the strongest destination brand among Americans.
Interestingly, three of the top 10 are cruise lines, supporting the contention that families want 360º experiences. Get them on a boat, moving along clear waters, with enough stuff to do, and parents will pay top dollar. Additionally, when the Bronx and San Diego Zoos are observed alongside the cruise lines, a sudden desire to be outdoors, in more natural surroundings surfaces.
Our cities certainly don't fair as well here; not one makes it to the top 10. Theme parks, cruise lines and zoos - that's fun and friendly. Clearly there is much more to actually making the purchase decision for vacation this year, but BAV has told us where our dreams lie - fun, wholesome, animals and city lights - ideally with an ocean not too far away. Maybe summer isn't so different after all. Now go chase that Mr. Tastee-Freeze truck and have one on me.
ii In the mid 1980's Landor recognized that all brands, regardless of category, country or target audience seemed to live by certain rules. To understand those rules and describe the strongest brands we undertook the world's first cross-category, multi-county study of brands, ImagePower®. In the early 1990's the ImagePower study was expanded from a few key measures of brand stature to the largest study of brands in the world. To date, BAV is in 45 countries, covers 30,000 brands, interviews with over 500,000 consumers and includes hundreds of brand metrics and attitudinal questions. Today, a consortium of companies that make up Y&R Brands runs BAV. Landor is one of those companies.
ii This theory of The Four Pillars is "grounded theory" - derived from comprehensive analysis of over 15,000 brands to empirically uncover the common elements that intuitively strong brands share.