Recently I found myself in the Dining Hall at North Georgia College and State University having breakfast with one of the leading tourism consultants in the Southeast. While that dining room has undoubtedly witnessed many student discussions about the runny consistency of the eggs, our conversation that morning was about the complex subject of tourism branding. "What," asked a third dining companion, who is not employed in the tourism industry, "is the difference between a brand and positioning?"
"Well, you see, um, the thing is," was followed by a brief though somewhat inarticulate series of answers by the two of us who are actually in the business. We have an innate understanding of these principles the same way that a surfer understands the relationship of the board to the wave. Yet neither of us had ever taken the time to come up with a short explanation for the layman. So, here goes.
• The destination does not get to decide what the brand is — the consumer does. By definition a brand is the way a customer or potential customer feels about a product, service, or in the case of tourism, a destination. The destination can try to lead the consumer to the proper conclusion through smart advertising and marketing. The ultimate interpretation of the brand is up to the consumer and can vary from one to another.
• The destination does control the positioning and uses it to shape the overall brand strategy.
• A successful tourism brand has to be based on the truth about the destination’s strengths, weaknesses and personality. It’s a major mistake to try to build a brand based on overly optimistic (perhaps delusional) opinions of what a community has to offer.
• Positioning can be influenced by outside forces such as a desire to differentiate from other destinations. For example, there are thousands of miles of beautiful beaches in the southeast yet one beach community can indeed stand out from all the others by positioning itself as more upscale, more artistic, more pet-friendly or more anything. Bold and creative positioning can be a potent part of the larger brand strategy as long as it’s truthful (see previous bullet point).
As you can see, positioning is part of branding. When our firm tackles a branding project a positioning statement is one of the things we deliver to the client. It’s typically a concise paragraph written in simple, non-flowery language. It will never be confused with advertising copy, but it will certainly influence advertising for a long time to come. What’s the distinction between advertising and branding? That can be the subject for another day.