Last week I had the pleasure of being in the beautiful central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at Massanutten Resort, where I was the featured speaker at the Shenandoah Valley Partnership's Fall Forum. The partnership's efforts are mostly focused on economic development but they wisely understand the role of tourism not only as an injection of money into the local economy but also because visitors sometimes fall in love with a place they visit and relocate and become members of the community.
A group of Shenandoah Valley tourism offices recently launched a regional brand initiative. In addition, local cities and towns across the valley have or are considering their own community brands. So, forum organizers asked me to share some thoughts on the value of strong brands and how to ensure success. Here are a couple of the insights I discussed.
• Successful branding is not about appealing to everyone. It's about appealing to the right people more intensely.
This is a difficult concept for most people to grasp. It's human nature to want to be liked. Marketers have a natural inclination to want as many people as possible to like their product. The reality is that powerful brands carve out a niche in the marketplace and work hard to dominate that corner of the market. Mercedes and Hyundai are both successful brands that happen to have drastically different messaging and target totally different demographics. They found their niche. The automotive market is large enough for the brands to thrive and have loyal followings. The same undeniable truth applies to destinations. Destinations need to figure out what they have to offer and confidently pursue the proper target market and avoid saying "we have something for everyone."
• The process of building and strengthening the brand never ends.
That's not intended to make it sound like a lifetime of sheer drudgery. The point is that it is important to be consistent in how you communicate the brand messaging and to deliver the brand promise. For example, long-time customers of catalog and retail giant LL Bean have become accustomed to the way associates treat customers on the phone and in their stores. They have also gotten used to their no-hassle return policy. If that ever changes — fundamentally changing the brand promise — the LL Bean brand would be forever damaged. While the old adage is that actions speak louder than words, inconsistent messaging can also damage brands. Once a destination has established a unique and interesting brand positioning, drifting away from the core message over time (especially if it goes in the direction of "we have something for everyone") seriously dilutes the brand and chips away at credibility.
A strong brand has tremendous benefits, including excellent recognition and recall, repeat business loyalty, and to some degree, a willingness by consumers to pay a little more. What brand wouldn't want all that?
Photo courtesy of Shenandoah Valley Partnership