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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua


It’s extraordinary how impactful first impressions can be. I was reminded of that this week when I visited Norway for the first time and, within minutes of deplaning, had two “service” experiences that would make any hospitality organisation blush with pride.

Both positive impressions were with the “Flytoget” team at Oslo airport. “Flytoget” is the Express Shuttle that links the airport at Gardermoen, 47 km north of Oslo, to the city centre. It’s clean, efficient and ultra-contemporary: like the Heathrow express, but surprisingly cheaper.

City Branding


I arrived at the automatic ticket machine and was immediately offered help  by a ticket attendant who spoke perfect English. Then when I reached the platform a young female attendant was on hand to explain that the awaiting train was direct to Oslo and, as I was bound for Lillestrøm, I should wait for the next one.

The safe, secure and warm impression that I felt inside as I awaited the shuttle’s departure made me think how often my arrival into the unknown airport of a unvisited city had been anything but safe, secure and warm.  First time visits, particularly if you’re travelling alone, can be deeply challenging, frightening, intimidating, even for regular travellers like #eventprofs. In Oslo this week, thanks to two great human interactions,  I felt genuinely welcome and opened my heart to embrace a new city. And then, of course, I tweeted about it!

Delivering the brand promise

I’ve been thinking about my Oslo arrival experience in the context of successful destination marketing. In ways it was casebook-perfect: to quote the Carlsberg TV spot, “If Carlsberg did destination experiences, then it would be like my one”.  But this isn’t always the case. Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) all over the world spend bucket loads of money on brand campaigns to attract visitors only for all their work to be undone by a bad first impression – an airport that’s difficult to navigate, a rude encounter with service personnel, a transport shuttle that’s filthy dirty, an over-charged taxi ride.

City Branding


City brands often make promises but most cannot keep them because, realistically, that part is out of their reach – the brand promises “friendliness” but you arrive at the airport and nobody wants to help you; the brand speaks of “value” but you get charged £13 at London City Airport for two cappuccinos and a croissant (true story!); the brand is all about “sustainability” but the streets haven’t been swept.

DMO becomes DMMO?

In simple terms this underlines the need for DMOs to extend their reach beyond marketing to management – DMAI, Bruce McMillan and others have made this point in the past. If the destination marketing organisation also had oversight on destination management (and, obviously, I’m not talking about DMCs here!) then surely there’s a greater chance of delivering on the promise?

City Branding


But it’s not as simple as this. Destination Marketing & Management Organisations (DMMOs) can certainly improve delivery along the channel, particularly if they’re connected with the widest possible community of civic stakeholders – the politicians, the mayor, the city council, the FDI guys, the educational institutions, the regulatory bodies etc. They can devise, agree and promulgate brand identity, pillars and promise and hold induction workshops to ensure that all stakeholders are briefed, aligned  and on board.

But even then you’re still only scratching the surface as all this collective effort can so easily be destroyed if a first time visitor to the destination encounters the wrong citizen at the airport. After all, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression!

Branding a City

So what are the implications for branding a country or city and attracting visitors to that there by the appeal and attractiveness of the brand? The first and most important implication is that you cannot really brand a country or city. At least not in the same way as you can brand a commercial product or service. There’s a significant and growing body of literature around this topic with most of it sooner or later, for better or for worse, mentioning Simon Anholt, the global consultant credited with coining the term Nation Branding. In Places – Identity Image and Reputation Anholt debunks the entire idea of city branding as “both vain and foolish” because cities are not products to be bought and sold but living, breathing entities made up of unique, diverse people, each with his or her story to tell. In her provocative book Branding the Nation Melissa Aronczyk nails it by quoting from a consultants’ report on the Øresund region:

You don’t have to ask the beans in the can how they feel about the label.

So what can we do?

We can certainly create clever marketing communications campaigns to highlight what makes our city different. Depending on how clever they are, these may “cut through the clutter” and, in the short term,  attract visitors to our destination for leisure breaks or, indeed, to stage meetings and events.

City Branding


However, if we want to try to replicate in our city or country the more enduring impact of successful commercial branding then a much wider, deeper and very long term plan is required. This plan will require the involvement and sponsorship of government, of political, cultural and civic leadership and will have far reaching implications in areas such as educational policy, town and city planning, economic development, philosophies and principles of nationhood.

By so doing we maximise the chances of having highly educated personnel at airports who speak perfect English and intuitively provide assistance to slightly nervous first time visitors who don’t know their way around.

Pádraic Gilligan, along with Pat Delaney and Aoife McCrum, runs SoolNua a specialist agency working with destinations, venues and hotels on strategy, marketing and training.

The wonderful photographic portraits on this page are taken from the Visit Norway website, one of the better DMO sites I’ve seen in recent years. 





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