Emotion is a destination's key differentiator

By Tom Dougherty

Tom DoughertyYou would think that all marketers know that in competitive markets, their brand message must be different and better than that of their competitors. This axiom is equally true in destination and tourism, because travelers have so many choices.

Yet it seems that no destination is able to really pull off being different and better -- not, at any rate, from the perspective of the traveler. What do traveling consumers see and hear, and what are they choosing? How do they arrive at a destination choice? What do the choices present to them?

Based on what I've seen, the destinations have done themselves no favors in helping travelers make a choice. That's because few destinations offer a true choice.

In considering just a few U.S. states, slogans run from "What People Are Talking About" (Utah) to "Just Right" (South Carolina). What do those mean? How do they help a consumer make a choice?

There are also the ones that are too clever (meaning, they have no meaning and feel trite), such as Alabama's "Sweet Home" and Georgia's "On My Mind." (Get it? Nudge, nudge.)

They do nothing to move the needle. Instead, consider the questions travelers ask themselves to make a selection.

Seasonality certainly plays a part. In the summer months, most seek a destination with an experience or a theme (visiting a national park or a theme park, for example). Winter months draw adventurers looking to amplify the climate (skiing or snowboarding, for example) or counter the home climate (a tropical destination).

Yet the destinations' messages lack the ability to differentiate one from another. What tropical destination does not have (or pretend to have) white sandy beaches, palm trees, friendly locals and azure blue water? Does the traveler understand the difference that each destination is trying to create? Is that really any difference?

What does the traveler believe are the differences between Jamaica and Turks and Caicos? Between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas? Without having a powerful meaning, the destination is letting the traveler decide by default, and that default is often decided simply on cost. Not exactly what the destination marketer had hoped.

On the other hand, consider the terrific job that the India Tourist Board has done marketing the subcontinent to the European market. It has grabbed and held the idea of India as an exotic destination with intense cultural color and vibrancy.

Unfortunately, the "Incredible India" campaign is a diamond in a coal mine. Most destinations lack the consistency and soul of the India juggernaut.

The key to success is found in convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), but it is within those same organizations that the problems are found.

A CVB and/or a tourism ministry are uniquely positioned to coordinate and share a common focus. The problem is that often the politics of those organizations water down the message until it is so vanilla that no one is pleased, least of all the tourist.

A consumer's choice of a destination is a complicated decision. The prospects have to decide on a region and then answer a set of questions: If I want to go to New England, which state? If I decide to climb the Rockies, where do I go in that range of mountains?

The complications extend to choosing their lodging, packages and transportation, all the more reason to make the emotional connection to a destination as simple as possible. Precision, consistency and importance are the hallmarks of success.

The challenge for destinations is to be single-minded. Too many want to tell you about all the features they offer, complete with amenities and scenery and local flavor. While those are important, they are not the reasons why destinations are chosen.

It's the single-minded, emotional quality that attracts travelers.

For example, consider how this is approached in the fast-food category, where McDonald's is the leader. Now you could argue that's because it has the most locations, but actually, Subway has more. No, what makes McDonald's No. 1 is a single-minded focus on "fun."

Does McDonald's have the best food? Of course not, especially from a nutritional standpoint. Does it have the cleanest restaurants? Not in my experience.

No, the reason McDonald's is the market leader is because it focuses tightly on family fun to attract customers. It's what the McDonald's brand is all about. It's not about product, necessarily, or friendly staff. It's become the fast-food place you go to that will satisfy anyone you are with (most notably, your family).

Think how India would market a ski resort. Showing fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked skiers speeding down a snowy trail would not be enough. The brand demands more. India, if it had ski resorts, would market them as being "exotic."

I am hard-pressed to think of a ski destination that owns anything other than snow, variety and nightlife. Where is the brand? It resides in the resorts, not the entire destination. I might know what Breckenridge means (even if it is little different from Keystone or Vail), but the skier needs a more prominent touchstone when making the distinction that creates preference. Anything else comes down to weather reports and price.

The tropical destination market is even more complex. It includes the cruise industry, the island groups, all-inclusive resorts, amenities like reef diving and access to local culture.

Think about this: How are prospective travelers to decide where to spend their money? Is it the island that they choose or the resort where they spend their time? Are they looking for an all-inclusive price for a bar in a pool or are they looking for immersion in a local culture? Or are they seeking both?

Why not know your target market's innermost beliefs, gauge their appetite and sell them a fulfillment of that yearning? To do it, you need more than the typical usage and attitudinal study; you need a brand anthropological study that gets right to root behavior by uncovering the highest emotional intensity that drives decisions.

Once you align yourself with that intensity, you will become more preferred because you are about the traveler and not about you, the destination.

The most effective assistance a resort or a specific location can receive is from its CVB or local tourism organization. That's where the brand should live. The decision tree among travelers is not to seek out a specific resort (unless you're talking about Disney World). Tourists first consider a place, a destination that speaks to their aspirations.

Here's a plan for what CVBs should do:

  • Consider true differentiators.
  • Undertake quantitative research to determine whether those differentiators are important.
  • Ask yourself what are the emotional drivers to the important triggers.
  • Test those emotional drivers in research.
  • Consider your competition and what position they take.
  • Position yourself against that with the single most persuasive thing you can say.
  • Avoid being clever, because clever is not believable.

If any destination positions itself with an emotional quality, all its resorts, hotels and restaurants follow suit, and you have a brand that fits into the traveler's decision tree.

You need to get the traveler to seek you out and beat a path to your door even if the costs are greater -- that is, unless you want to compete only on price and category. But the fact is that those funding the marketing budgets are hoping for more.

Tom Dougherty is the CEO and president of branding company Stealing Share. Over a 25-year career, he has led efforts for such brands as Ikea, Tide and Lexus as well as for many destinations. 

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