If you'd been told that on April 23, 2012, a country would be revealing its first-ever comprehensive destination marketing campaign, no one could fault you for assuming the country in question was a developing or newly independent nation.
But no, it's not South Sudan.
This campaign was created to market our own 235-year-old country. Today, Brand USA is unveiling its inaugural attempt to lure more visitors to America. Individual U.S. destinations and travel companies will finally be getting advertising support from a national organization.
Brand USA, the public/private entity charged with increasing our share of international visitors, will mount a $12.3 million blitz via TV, the Web, billboards, print advertising and social media beginning May 1 in the U.K., Canada and Japan.
A second wave will include Brazil and South Korea, with several other markets to follow.
Chris Perkins, the chief marketing officer of Brand USA, gave me a sneak peek at the campaign and spoke to me about how it developed.
It began, as much marketing does, with efforts to better understand existing product perceptions.
Research was fielded in the 16 countries that send the most visitors to America.
"We started out knowing we have 100%, or almost 100%, brand recognition," Perkins said. "But we wanted to know what motivates people to visit and what keeps others away."
In exploring the barriers to visitation, the group discovered recurring themes. There was a belief among some potential visitors that Americans are arrogant and, for that matter, not particularly welcoming. Even the name Homeland Security is off-putting, Perkins found out. "It doesn't suggest safety for all. It puts out the message that we're watching out for ourselves."
Further, America is, in Perkins' words, a "middle age" destination. "Middle age is a summary way of saying we're not as shiny and new and fresh" as some destinations. "People think they already know us. From pop culture. From the news."
Depending on the market, however, 18% to 40% of those surveyed were strongly predisposed not only to visit the U.S. but to recommend it to their fellow citizens.
Brand USA discovered that what these people love about the U.S. is its diversity, and they're inspired by America's endless possibilities.
"They see an awesome range of extraordinary experiences, and they believe that Americans welcome the opportunity to share their dreams" Perkins said. "Knowing this, we crafted a message that would clearly be very welcoming and would speak of possibilities and experience."
It was also agreed early on that music, that most universal of languages, would have a central place in the campaign. The song "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie struck the team as capturing the spirit of shared wonder, and the team contacted Guthrie's estate to explore licensing the song. But because it could not be exclusively licensed by Brand USA, it was ultimately decided that the campaign needed its own custom-tailored song.
Subsequent to the research, a slogan was developed: "Discover this land, like never before." Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash and an accomplished artist in her own right, was engaged to write a song that would fit the theme and the campaign's goals. The result can be seen in the 60-second spot "Land of Dreams," here; a 20-second spot can be seen at the bottom of the page.
Although many countries where it will be shown speak languages other than English, the song will not be translated, Perkins said, because "research showed this is how [potential visitors] prefer to see it."
Ultimately, it is up to Americans to deliver on the promise of the campaign. I'm not too worried about our ability to provide a warm, diverse, even wondrous experience, but previous U.S. Travel research has suggested that there is well-founded anxiety about the initial welcome visitors receive in our immigration halls. I asked Perkins about that.
"We're in the marketing business," he replied. "Brand USA is not a lobbying group or policy group, but we want to reinforce [our message] at all levels. Security is paramount, and always will be, but we're working closely with the good folks at TSA, and there's a great deal of interest in improving [the welcome]. We've talked about scripting engagement protocol and helping with training."
The entry halls, even embassies and consulates, can also have overt connections to what Brand USA is doing, he said.
Having seen the components, I believe the campaign works thematically, aesthetically and emotionally; the 20-second spots are downright exciting. And although I think "Discover this land, like never before" is a bit clunky for a catchphrase, it wasn't crafted for my ears, and one hopes it won't be lost in translation when it's shipped overseas.
Perkins said the developers specifically avoided any directly patriotic or nationalistic overtones, but I can honestly say that watching the commercials made me proud. Our diversity of people and experiences truly is amazing.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Perkins how the campaign tested against those with the strongest negative impressions of America.
"Some, you can't change their minds, so you don't try," he said. "But the good news is that many objectors saw this and said, 'Well, I may not believe everything, but ... maybe.' We do want to win over the people in the middle, the fence sitters, and they told us, 'This is positive.'
"Marketing done right has a multiplier effect," Perkins concluded. "You set in motion a context of understanding, and if it's worthy, [consumers] will share it in ways that are bigger than you could ever buy."
Starting next month, the campaign's worthiness will get its first road test.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.