Stand out from the competition with consistent and strategic branding.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. American humorist Will Rogers might have made that point many decades ago, but it still holds true today. And for travel agencies, that first impression often hinges on how the company brands itself. 

Whether an agency is a one-person operation or an office of hundreds, branding is key to establishing and maintaining a professional image. Most importantly, strategic branding is a way to stand out in a crowded marketplace. And while modern technology has made design and marketing tools increasingly more accessible to travel agents, the plethora of options can sometimes lead agencies off track from their fundamental branding. 

According to the Digital Branding Institute, a variety of factors influence how successful marketers brand themselves. Among the most important factors for travel agencies seeking to craft and optimize their brand identity are cross-platform consistency, differentiating factors, demonstration of overall goals and maximizing exposure—which can all work together to help an agency stand out in a crowded marketplaces.   

Why Branding Matters
As in many market segments, a travel agency’s brand identity is often the first exposure a potential client has to a company. Branding helps agencies connect with their target market on multiple levels, and savvy agents work to maximize that potential. “Brand image is extremely important for my agency’s success,” says Jenn Earley, owner of Atlanta-based Cultured Vacations. “It’s important that my brand comes through and reflects who we are and who we service.”

And sometimes that means getting back to basics. For example, in analyzing his company’s branding, Robert Riesmeyer took a hard look at every element of his brand—and decided to rename his agency in December 2017. The company’s previous moniker, Travel Benefits by Design, based in Wellington, Missouri, didn’t accurately reflect his company’s positioning, he explains. 

“It was just too corporate; it sounded stiff,” he says. “What we do are more unique, one-off experiences. The name brand is important. It conveys what you’re all about.” To that end, the new name is now Travel Unrivaled, part of a new comprehensive branding program for the agency. 

Also casting a fresh gaze at the concept of branding is Micky Dixon, owner of Travel Planning for YOU!! in San Antonio, Texas. In fact, she only recently began recognizing the importance of crafting an image for her agency. “I first started thinking about it as I was contemplating my business for 2018,” she says. “What things did I want to change, what things did I want to do better? With the company name Travel Planning for YOU!!, I haven't made it very clear that I am focusing on European vacations and river cruising.”

As a result, Dixon says the time has come to devise a brand strategy to educate the traveling public about what makes her company special. “As I grow, I see branding as something that I need to consider more seriously,” she says. “Word of mouth is spreading about my agency, and I need to be sure that people being referred to me by past clients understand that I do things differently than other agents.”

Creating an Overall Vision
Branding, of course, is more than just the company name. And it’s also more than just a logo, website or a nice piece of stationery. It’s an overarching identity for a business, designed to communicate the company’s key purpose and strengths. So it’s no surprise that developing a robust branding strategy takes time, and requires a well-defined positioning and voice. 

Sometimes it also requires a fresh look at your company and goals. You can’t convey the unique attributes of your brand unless you’ve defined them yourself. What does your company represent? What makes your company different than other travel agencies? Do you specialize in specific kinds of travel? How does your company add value to the travel experience for clients? Those are the facts and the intangibles that a strategic branding approach should convey to clients. 

And then there are the logistics to be factored in. When searching for a company name, as Riesmeyer did, the challenges can be daunting. “It used to be a matter of just coming up with a good name and you’re good,” he says. “But now you’ve got to check if the URL is available,” he notes. “Or if you can get the URL, maybe you can’t get the name in social media. It’s important that you have everything branded the same.” 

To help with his agency’s new image, Riesmeyer hired Brands Unboxed, a Missouri-based consulting firm. “We were basically trying to keep things simple, cohesive and consistent across the board,” says Christie Nordmeyer, the firm’s founder and CEO. “Whether people hear the name or see the visual, we want it to trigger a sensory experience, to ignite a sense of wanderlust.”

Earley also takes a big-picture approach to reinforcing her agency’s identity. “The truth is, the overall perception with my target audience is that travel agents and agencies are ‘old school” and just sell cruises,” she says. “The Cultured Vacations brand dispels that myth. The main qualities that we seek to convey in the brand are ‘premium,’ ‘fun’ and the ability to have Instagram-worthy experiences curated by an expert who gets you and your travel style.”

The Visuals
Whether it’s an impressive logo, eye-catching graphics or spectacular photography, compelling visual elements help to draw attention and instill a sense of professionalism and uniqueness that helps each agency distinguish itself from the competition. 

“Once the agency’s branding strategy has been defined, the next step is to work on the creative, and determine what that key visual is going to be for you and your brand,” says Earley, who in addition to running Cultured Vacations, also operates Amplified Marketing Services, which helps small businesses with marketing strategy and execution. “Often, because of the space we’re in, that key visual is your logo. Having a strong logo, graphics, fonts, signage and website design are super important, and they should all be working together.”

When considering visual elements, agents should rethink what a consumer wants or needs to see in order to be interested in what you’re offering, advises Maggie Fischer, chief marketing officer at CCRA, a travel commerce network that provides marketing programs, booking tools and other services to travel agencies. “A lot of travel agencies are still stuck in that mode where they’ve got to have a business card that shows a photo of a beach,” she says. “Avoid using specific photography or anything that would pigeonhole you as having just one type of travel that you offer.”

Consistency Is Critical 
As with any business that involves human interaction, intangible qualities like specialization, experience, knowledge and reliability are all things that customers look for—and can be difficult to communicate. And while travelers might be attracted to a lovely logo, a catchy tagline or a pretty picture, even the most thoughtfully designed brand strategy won’t mean as much if your presence isn’t executed consistently across all platforms—including email, website, Facebook page, physical signage and business cards, to name a few. Travelers need to get the same impression of the company, no matter where they see its presence. 

Fischer says that a tagline can be helpful in conveying those intangible selling points. “Keep your branding very open, and make sure that you use a strong positioning statement, like ‘I change lives through travel’—something that’s a little more existential than ‘your discount budget travel guy,’” she explains. “It has to be about what you’re really providing to these people, which is supposed to be life-changing experiences, not just trips and vacations. The higher level you make your message, the wider the net you’ll cast.”

And, of course, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. In keeping with her overall branding, Earley says, “Our tone and voice is fun, but not immature; premium but not pretentious; professional but not stuffy,” she says. That’s true across the board, whether on a Facebook post or a website description. 

Earley looks to her company’s core identity to create style guidelines. “I achieve consistency in my brand across multiple platforms by identifying brand ‘mandatories’ that must be included in every piece of creative that is out there,” she says. “For example, with Cultured Vacations, there is a collage of people traveling and travel scenes. This collage is used on my business card, as well as the website header image and the Facebook header image.”

Maximizing Brand Exposure
With today’s wide-reaching social media platforms, it’s easier than ever for travel agencies to expose their brand to a wider audience. But 21st-century social media is just one of many channels for expanding a brand’s reach. 

Marketing consultant Nordmeyer points out that travel agents can also showcase their expertise through side channels. Riesmeyer, for example, writes blog posts about travel. “It’s his way of showing that he’s an expert,” she says. “It changes the brand voice, to make it more creative, to break through the clutter.”

Riesmeyer has also found success with a more traditional form of communication. “We’ve gone back to direct mail,” he says. “Direct mail went downhill when email came up. But now, email inboxes have gotten so cluttered that people don't even look at them.”

Earley also finds that a diversified approach works well. “I’m always seeking opportunities to get my brand in front of clients in a meaningful way,” she says. “I utilize a mix of offline, such as mailings to current and post clients, and online, including emails, partnerships, social media and influencers, to drive awareness of the brand.” 

Getting Personal 
The proliferation of social media hasn’t only affected corporate branding—it’s also made it easier for individuals to build their own personal brands. But how does an agent’s personal brand affect the overall branding of an agency?  
“This is super tricky,” says Earley. “Your personal brand has a lot to do with your corporate brand if you’re a smaller agency—potential clients are seeking to get to know you to build trust and a relationship where they feel comfortable working with you on a $20,000 honeymoon. At the end of the day, we are in sales, which is a relationship business.”

Regardless of the size of the company, Riesmeyer notes the importance of maintaining a professional stance in personal branding. “You have to be constantly vigilant on what you do and what you post,” he says. “I’ve got clients who are left of center, I’ve got clients who are right of center. I’ve got to walk that fine line and not tick off anybody. At the end of the day, you do business with the people that you like.”

To that end, personal branding can also enhance the agency’s brand. Riesmeyer, for example, personally supports a lot of nonprofit causes. “That’s part of his brand,” says Nordmeyer. “It builds trust in him, and that can automatically transfer over to the agency brand.”

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