Destination Marketing Should Attract Visitors, But Does It?

There is no research that actually shows that destination marketing organisations (‘DMOs’) are directly responsible for increases in visitors. Nor for increases of arrivals, length of stay, spending or other related results. Destination marketing activities and competitiveness do not seem to have much impact.

For many years now, destination marketing is seen as the basis of future growth and sustainability of tourism destinations in an increasingly global tourism and travel market .

There is no research that actually shows that DMOs and their marketing activities or competitiveness are directly responsible for increases in visitors revenues.

Nic 2020

Simply put, destination marketing’s goal is to attract visitors to a destination. The idea is that destination marketing can help boost the local tourism sector and economy of a destination. How? By setting up and getting (government) funding for a activities including stakeholder involvement, developing a brand identity and marketing communications. This should all lead to an increase in visitors and spend. Which again should lead to an increase in job opportunities. And if people from other countries can be attracted, at country level it would also mean an increase of gross domestic product (GDP). Economics 101. Except that it does not work like that.

‘Should’ and ‘would’, since – despite the existence of destination marketing organisations (‘DMOs’) for over a century – there is no definitive research that actually shows that DMOs and their marketing activities or competitiveness are directly responsible for increases in visitors revenues.

In addition Internet, mobile, social media, online reviews, Google Travel are completely overtaking destination advertising, branding and promotion. Today’s consumer behaviour is changing dramatically. Away from traditional marketing and branding concepts. Also and especially in the tourism and travel. It is therefore high time the DMOs to transform themselves.

Destination marketing today is mostly limited to branding and advertising

The marketing and especially promotion of destinations is now a major activity of DMOs all over the world. Today’s DMOs mainly perform ‘marketing’ of their destinations limited to advertising through branding and promotion of the destination. As if the other ‘Ps’ in the marketing mix are not relevant. In addition, DMOs are using concepts from consumer good marketing and applying them to destination marketing like image, brand, positioning etc. That does not really work as I will show here below.

The rise of Internet, mobile and social media should have given destination marketing a further boost. But actually, as I will explain, today’s online developments effectively mean the end of the way destination marketing is done today. As far as destination branding and promotion goes. It just does not help the local tourism business or travel operator. Destination marketing organisations therefore must reinvent themselves. And start looking at the other marketing Ps.

Is destination branding and advertising actually working?

What is the DMO’s effectiveness related to branding and advertising? What does it actually mean for local tourism and travel businesses? Does it really help them improve their bottom line (income) and top line (revenue)? Can a DMO create and control a unique destination image or brand? And if so, how does it actually help the local industry to boost visitors and revenues?

Today’s DMOs mainly perform ‘marketing’ of their destinations, limited to advertising through branding and promotion of the destination.

Nic 2020

Today, DMOs focus mainly on ‘destination image’. Destination images are held by consumers about a destination which theoretically should then influence their decision making. The idea then is that the DMO can design, create, adjust and manage the destination image

However, a DMO is not a perfume company, car manufacturer or beer brewer. Such producers have the ability (and money!) to create and control a unified image and brand for their products. A DMO has no control over the image of a destination held by consumers whatsoever.

1. Can a Destination Image be changed?

There is a persistent belief among destination marketeers that DMOs can actually influence the visitors’ perception of a destination. In such a way that the visitor will decide to visit the destination. I have found no research which confirms this. I also believe I never based a decision to go somewhere on marketing communications by the destination I visited.

None of today’s research shows a direct relation between a DMOs efforts to manage image and actual numbers of visits to or increase of revenues in a destination.

Nic 2020

There is a lot of research done on destination branding and image but none of that research shows or proves there is a direct relation between a DMOs efforts to create, adjust or strengthen image on actual numbers of visits or increase of revenues in a destination.

Why is that? A person’s image of a destination is shaped by multiple factors, or any combination of these:

  1. a visitor might have been influenced by other offline and online communications of a hotel, tourist office, travel guide, travel agent;
  2. the perception might have been shaped organically through family, school (geography lessons), movies, actually having visited the destination before for other reasons, like business, , etc.;
  3. the individual may have been made aware of better value (travel) packages or events such as natural disasters or terrorism;
  4. but more importantly today, he or she is mainly influenced by word of mouth recommendations; from family or friends, online reviews, or blog posts from trusted bloggers (nowadays including so-called ‘influencers’).

No recall what influenced decision

Therefore, because there are so many factors, it is often difficult for the visitor to recall what actual particular marketing communication or motive eventually led to the destination decision.

The visit to the website of the DMO could have played some small role. But this could have well been after the decision to go to the destination was already taken. And the visit to the website was one of many visits to many of the websites in the destination to find things to do. And at the destination it was mainly Google Maps and its local information helping out. Because the days that people visited the local tourist office or its website (or that of the DMO) are over.

The DMO website as central website (with its promise of ‘nice high-quality pictures’ and ‘objective information’) of all destination searches to go to is also a myth. People visit many more sites and increasingly the Google Travel Guides and Google Maps are the main entry point into any destination search.

There is no such thing as one destination image

Moreover, there are as many destination images as there are individuals! And a person can have more than one image of a destination! For instance, I hold several images of Brussels. The image I have as a tourist visiting the city. That of me as a business man gone there for work . And finally the image as a young student and resident when I was a ‘stagiaire’ working for the European Commission. And finally I have another image of Brussels based on all that I read. In newspapers, articles in magazines, see on TV, etc. There is no such thing as ‘one Brussels’ for me. There is no ‘one image, one ‘brand’. It is exactly why I like Brussels. And other places around the world.

Is that bad? Not at all. It only makes life hard for destination marketeers and their consultants. They would like to work with more one-dimensional stereotypes. They want to keep it simple. Because they have to defend spending (taxpayers) money on expensive branding and promotion campaigns in front of government boards and local tourism and travel businesses.

To my surprise and the luck of consultants, (ignorant) governments keep on falling for the nice stories and presentations by such consultants. And they waste valuable money which could have been better spend on helping local businesses.

We do not need one destination image

Personally, I love the fact that a destination has more than one face. Or one image. Today’s destination marketing destroys that with their ‘brand image’ ideas. They keep on telling us that one cannot be all for anybody. That only a few strong points need to be communicated. Choices have to be made. Etcetera etcetera. Which may be true for example for consumer goods or the tourism offerings themselves (hotel, attraction, event). But not for abstract notions as ‘destinations’. Destination marketeers try to squeeze their destinations into oversimplified images with which nobody can identify. Except for the destination marketeers themselves.

Destination images are for a large part created by the local tourism and travel businesses

Any effort to create, manipulate, adjust destination image is therefore a waste of time and ( local businesses’ and tax payers’) money. Moreover, there is no evidence it actually helps the local tourism and travel business to boost visitors to their locations.

It are the local tourism and travel operators themselves and local residents that CAN to a certain extent influence and control the image of the destination. They can do that through their own product offerings and behaviour. They can control, improve, manage the image of their hotel, restaurant, shop, attraction, tour, event. Together with all the other businesses in the destination, they are the building blocks for each visitor’s perception (=image) of the destination. However, the impact is very small. And even a small image change takes a long time.

Also local governments help in creating images

The local governments also play a role here. They can help keep the streets clean, improve the infrastructure, make public transportation available. Or cheaper. Governments can help with new product development. Upgrade buildings, roads. Attracting or partnering with existing businesses to create new businesses. All activities that add to improving the visitors’ perception. Again these are long-term processes.

All are bothered by limiting this to some overall ‘unique’ destination image or brand invented by a branding agency. Because in the end it are the visitors to the destination who have the end-say. They together determine what their perceptions are of your destination. Which image(s) they hold of the offerings in the destination and the destination itself.

It are the local tourism and travel businesses and residents and the local governments who can manage the destination image(s), but only to a small extent.

Nic 2020

Therefore, in stead of wasting lots of money on consultants proposing destination image or branding projects, such funds should be used to help local tourism and travel businesses. To help them grow visits and boost revenues. And to improve infrastructure, transportation, etc. So the other ‘Ps’ of the marketing mix: Product (development), and activities performed by local governments, Pricing (public transportation), Partnerships, etc.

2. Can you ‘brand’ a destination?

Increasingly, DMOs have been moving into ‘branding’ initiatives since the 1990s in an attempt to differentiate themselves from other destinations.

In the late 1990s destination ‘branding’ emerged as a new field. Branding has since the become the main activity and key pillar in destination marketing for most DMOs.

The marketing language and vocabulary used is also copied from FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) and product marketing. A language used in large commercial enterprises in marketing and sales.

Like the word ‘branding’. They have taken over the same lingo and marketing concepts from the fast moving consumer good industry. As if visitors need and want to be ‘won over’ by DMOs. And actually base their decisions on which DMO ‘wins’. Which they do NOT. They are absolutely not interested in the DMO’s marketing messages. And are not at all influenced by them. As I will explain later.

War language

So now destinations are also ‘in war’ with each other, ‘fighting’ for visitors. And are ‘fiercely competing’ against each other. The destination is a ‘product’ that can be marketed and ‘sold’ in the same way as the newest iPhone.

The reasoning of destination marketeers goes as follows. From a destination image a ‘brand identity’ can be developed. This includes values, key competitors, positioning statements, key attributes and benefits and target audiences and more. The brand identity then defines how the destination should be perceived in the marketplace. The aim is ‘differentiation’. Showing that you are different from other destinations. Even if you are not.

This then would lead the visitor to actually to select the destination. But as explained above, there is no such thing as one destination image. And therefore creating one brand identity is also a waste of time. Moreover, the question how this actually helps local tourism and travel businesses (who often have to contribute fees to their local DMOs) remains unanswered.

There is no clear definition for destination branding

On top of that, there is no clear definition on what “destination branding” actually is.

According to some agencies and writers (like Hulbert & Pitt wrote in 1999) branding is the set of marketing activities that:

  1. support the creation of a name, symbol, logo, word mark or other graphic that readily identifies and differentiates the destination from other destinations; that
  2. consistently convey the expectation of a memorable travel experience;
  3. serve to consolidate and reinforce the emotional connection between the visitor and the destination; and
  4. reduce consumer search costs and perceived risk. The idea being that the visitor is overloaded by Internet with information. And seeing beautiful logos, slogans and website with great stories actually makes it easier for him or her to make a choice.

These activities all together should then serve to create a destination image that positively influences consumer destination choice. However, there is very little evidence whether any of this works for destinations.

Consumers show no interest in logos and slogans

DMOs spend a lot of time and money on the destination’s name, logo and value proposition (slogans). The idea is to use such expressions to support the brand identity in a way that will stand out in the middle of communications by competing destinations. The target consumer should then notice them in a meaningful and memorable way.

Consumers persistently show little interest in names, symbols, logos and slogans. And even if they are very good, they do not influence decision-making. For memorable travel experiences today’s consumer – as always has been the case – relies on family, friends. And nowadays on trusted bloggers and the multiple online review sites available.

Destination branding does not work

In addition to being ineffective, many destination slogans have been and are less than memorable. There are few exceptions, such as the 1970s ‘I ♥ New York’ campaign. But for every exception there are hundreds of examples of mediocre, badly conceived marketing messages. On which local governments waste millions of euros or dollars. And one can fill in all the world currencies here since this is happening in the whole world.

And more importantly, today’s consumer has become increasingly indifferent for slogans, advertisements, and other market communications (see Rebellion Marketing by Mark Schaefer).

In addition, there are several related issues that cause destination branding not to work:

  1. Again: a destination is not a product.
  2. DMOs do not have the resources that will differentiate their destination from competing destinations offering similar features and benefits.
  3. Most importantly, consumers actually do not see destinations as ‘brands’, so also cannot be loyal to destinations (the ultimate aim of branding).
  4. Researchers nor DMOs have no clear understanding of what ‘destination brands’ are.
  5. We do not know what branding does (not only for destinations, also often not for products).
  6. There is no evidence destination branding actually leads to more income for the destination as a whole. Or whether it helps local tourism and travel businesses to improve their revenues and income.

Destinations are too complex too brand

Designing a brand identity for a large entity such as a destination is complex. The key challenges lay in:

  1. effectively engaging the host community in the brand identity development,
  2. agreeing on a focused direction with a diverse and wide range of active stakeholders, which is not only inspirational but also feasible, and then
  3. ensuring their cooperation in collaboratively supporting the brand positioning required to communicate the brand identity.

Even if branding would work, the branding process for destinations is far more complex than that for consumer goods (Pike, Tourism Destination Branding Complexity, 2005) for five main reasons:

  1. A destination usually consists of a diverse and comprehensive range of multiple features; this cannot easily be summarised into a seven word single-minded value proposition or slogan. For a consumer good, the range of differentiating features emphasised is limited to one or a few features or benefits. this is much easier.
  2. The market interests of often vary diverse stakeholders are not the same.
  3. The politics of DMO decision making can make the best theories unworkable in practise.
  4. Destination marketers have no control over the actual delivery of the brand promise.
  5. Finally, the ultimate aim of branding is to stimulate brand loyalty. However, DMOs rarely come into contact with visitors to enable meaningful post-visit engagement to stimulate repeat visitation.

Therefore, in stead of wasting money on destination image or branding projects, tourism and travel businesses and their local governments should use the funds to help each other to grow visits to the destination and boost revenues.

3. What about destination brand positioning?

DMOs have started to create marketing communication kits based on destination brand image and identity to support brand positioning. Such blueprints are intended to be a tool to aid the design of all marketing communications. Not only by the DMO but also by stakeholders such as local businesses and travel operators.

Most of the day-to-day tactical operations of DMOs are spent designing, implementing, and monitoring marketing communications. They attempt to communicate the brand position of the destination in the market based on the ‘brand identity’. All marketing communications then should support reinforcement of the brand identity. So far the theory.

‘Brand positioning’ means establishing and maintaining a distinctive place in the market for an organisation and/or its individual product offerings. The goal is to that the brand identity and brand image become one. We have just established above this is not possible. Neither do they really seem to support local tourism and travel business in achieving their goals. Of growing visitors and revenues.

Leave a comment