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by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Tourism-Review.Com recently ran a piece by David Whitley ( entitled “A Destination Marketing Dilemma: How do you sell a city like Sheffield?” It’s a well written, mildly strident rant about what he calls the “cack-handed, hope-over-reality marketing” that many destination organisations are guilty of. He insists that destination marketing must focus on highlighting “experiences that are truly unique … the ones that offer a truly distinctive reason to pick (that destination)”. Whitley’s article raises key questions about how visitors are attracted to one destination and not another, sometimes with very little tangible difference between them.

Why is a destination selected?

Why do some destinations always win the city wide events while others struggle, despite good infrastructure? Often a particular destination may meet both the general criteria for successful destination selection – great access, perfect infrastructure, good health, safety and security credentials, value for money etc – as well as the key specifics of the particular event in question – proximity, for example, or seasonality – but mysteriously it gets rejected. When you try to understand why your destination has not been selected the reasons given are often vague. Sometimes they appear frivolous, even spurious: “It didn’t quite meet all our needs”. “We’re not convinced it has the X factor” “There was something missing” etc So why are certain destinations always favoured over others?

The importance of “Brand”

I believe destination selection is inexorably linked with the relevant strength of your destination “brand”, that is, the underlying but intangible way that your destination has an emotional, heart-driven connection with a customer. If your destination has not made an emotional connection with the prospective buyer and another destination has, then no amount of effort or persuasion is going to clinch the deal for you.

But how does the concept of “brand” relate to destination selection? Importantly, how can a destination crystallise and consolidate the various intangibles that might constitute its brand proposition so as to maximise its chances of selection? These questions merit answers that extend way beyond the scope of this blogpost but some general responses can be given.

Brand New York, London and Paris

Destinations like New York, London and Paris are all strong and solid brands in their own right and can stand right up beside Coca Cola, Apple and Nike in terms of brand recall. If a corporation or association selects any of these locations for a meeting, the vast majority of participants will be positively motivated by the choice. All participants will have clear expectations for the destination experience and will readily suppress possible negatives such as cost (these cities recovered very quickly from the recent recession) and inconvenience (lines for cabs, booked out restaurants, traffic etc) on the strength of its emotional appeal.

The importance of emotional appeal

This emotional appeal is often a complex confluence of many things that, over time, merge to create Brand New York or Brand London or Brand Paris. The emotional connection is fostered, for example, in and through traditional and contemporary cultural touchpoints such as literature, cinema, music, TV as well as digital media. Tier 1 global destinations such as the USA, UK, France and Italy have long been the backdrop to great novels and stories – think Charles Dickens’ London, Victor Hugo’s Paris, Shakespeare’s Venice or Verona or Rome. Cinema too has ensured that these locations are a shared reference point – remember Chicago in The Intouchables or Seattle and New York in Sleepless in Seattle or Florence in Room with a View? And then there are the songs, the TV shows and the digital real estate.

These cultural references to destinations are also prevalent over many decades, sometimes centuries ensuring that the destination brand has legacy and depth. Strong physical icons such as the Statue of Liberty, The Tower of London or the Eiffel Tower act, then, as belt and braces to secure the emotional connection, lest there be any doubt. So New York is chosen because it connotes freedom, liberation, chance to start again etc. London is selected for its pomp and ceremony, its palpable sense of tradition, its timelessness. When faced with such formidable competition it’s no wonder that Prague, Brussels and Munich will always struggle in a two way pitch with Paris, Barcelona and Monte Carlo.

What to do if you’re not New York

So what can Tier 2 and Tier 3 destinations do to improve their chances of winning more meetings and events business other than simply capitulate on price? The first step, undoubtedly, with the creation of or consolidation around an integrated destination master brand which reaches out, concentrically, to all potential visitors – leisure, business, niche and special interest. This master brand needs to leverage the emotional assets of the destination to the nth degree. It needs to have depth, breath and vision.

How does Memphis do it?

Memphis, Tennessee (see previous blog posts) does this very impressively. Lacking somewhat in air access (unless you happen to be in a FedEx box!), Memphis manages to grow its visitor numbers steadily by building its master brand around its musical heritage – the city’s unique connectivity to the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll with Sun Studios, Stax Records and, of course, Graceland. Its super-confident tag line “birthplace of rock’n’roll / home of the blues” is uncompromising, audacious and dynamic. The strong brand personality and architecture drives an equally robust and diversified MarCom strategy (with particularly creative exploitation of digital and social media platforms) and supports the efforts of a well marshalled sales team. Importantly it’s all pulled together under the leadership of Kevin Kane, a gifted destination marketeer, president for 2011 – 12 of the Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI).

There are many other tier two and three destinations that do a super job at punching way above their weight in an environment often controlled by huge budgets – the heavyweights on steroids. Think Dublin, Copenhagen, Slovenia, Poland. Common to all of these is a beating heart brand that tries to makes emotional connections with visitors and then engages with them across the full MarCom spectrum, creatively and consistently.

Padraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering marketing advice and expertise for destinations and MICE related enterprises


One thought on “How do you market a destination? Lessons from Memphis

  1. Whatever … here is a song from me to you. It’s good to be Belgian!

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