The definition of Brand Essence is “a brand’s fundamental nature or quality.” In other words, it’s the heart and soul of a brand. I’ve also heard it defined as the reason the brand exists in the first place, which may be accurate for corporate brands but is a bit of stretch for community or destination brands.

To really understand the concept, consider what some famous brands say is their essence. Hallmark: Caring Shared. The Nature Conservancy: Saving Great Places. Nike: Authentic Athletic Performance. A Brand Essence is not always written in flowery marketing language. It’s not always meant for the consumer. It does, however, keep the brand itself and all who speak for it focused on what matters. Once in a while it can be for both internal and external audiences. The Nature Conservancy uses Saving Great Places as its consumer messaging, too.

Why is a Brand Essence important to a community or tourism destination brand? Communities are a lot more complex than businesses, which are created by people for the purpose of filling a niche. A business’ Brand Essence is pretty much known when it’s founded. Communities are more diverse. They contain lots of groups with individual agendas. While all are valid and contribute something to the community, some have a greater impact on the personality of the place. Let’s face it, some have the potential to draw more visitors an economic activity than others. That’s what makes finding the Brand Essence difficult while at the same time demonstrating how critical it is. Marketers, including tourism marketers, have a natural predisposition to want to appeal to everyone. Unfortunately, that approach leads to weaker brands not strong ones. So, destinations have to determine what makes them unique and special. Finding those differentiators and putting them into a Brand Essence defines for everyone the “fundamental nature or quality” of the place.

With the recent passing of former President George H. W. Bush we heard a lot about the many virtues that he embodied in his daily life — service, decency, civility, gratitude and humility. What a great example to emulate as individuals and as businesses. As the year comes to an end, I’d like to reflect on how two of them in particular relate to Mikula-Harris.

We are profoundly grateful for our wonderful clients. We remind ourselves daily that our clients have placed a great deal of trust in us. In some instances the marketing decision maker is staking his or her job on their decision to choose us as their agency. In the case of an entrepreneur/business owner, he or she may be placing the future of their business in our hands. It’s a heavy burden but we are strengthened by their confidence. We’re also grateful to our clients for their willingness to invest in creativity. We appreciate how they listen to our ideas and let us run with them. Their willingness to hear our most creative ideas is directly tied to their confidence in us. Double the gratitude.

Being humble and being in the advertising industry are difficult to reconcile. Our job is to boast on behalf of our clients. Occasionally, we even have to boast about ourselves. Thankfully, I have no qualms about bragging about our team. I can rationalize that it’s not quite the same as bragging about me personally. As 2018 comes to an end, I don’t mind telling everyone that our amazing creative team — in collaboration with some incredibly talented partners like photographers, videographers, programmers and printers — have produced some very impressive work.

Highlights include:

  • Our work for the Shenandoah Valley was part of the peer-voted Best in Show winner at the VADMO Virgo Awards. The award went to the Shenandoah Valley partnership on the merits of their program and numerous accomplishments, but we’re still proud that our creative work played a part of the overall judging.
  • A series of videos supporting the “More of what matters” campaign for Mecklenburg County Tourism hit in the middle of the year. That one is doubly satisfying because that campaign won peer-voted Best in Show in the Virgo Awards a couple of years ago.
  • Branding work completed late in 2017 for Winchester, Virginia, has started to appear in media outlets. The full impact of that brand strategy is still being implemented. The tourism office in Winchester continues to build the brand by telling the many stories of people, places and events that make Winchester special.
  • A cool new video describing why Halifax County in southern Virginia is a wonderful place to call home. It will be used by major employers and economic development groups to recruit talent to the region. The video is unpretentious, creative, friendly and beautiful. In other words, it captures the essence of Halifax County.
  • Finally, our team spent a lot of time during 2018 on three great branding projects — two in Virginia and one in Tennessee. The results are being implemented right now but are not quite ready to be revealed. Look for case studies and blog posts on these projects soon.

Happy New Year! We hope your 2019 is filled with happiness and prosperity.

Among the goals of a good conference agenda is introducing attendees to a variety of ideas and perspectives. At the recent VA-1 Virginia Tourism Summit, two sessions, which took place back-to-back, really got me thinking about a valuable lesson for tourism marketers. Unfortunately, the second session missed the opportunity to amplify an important point from the earlier one.

The session was about making an impact on a small budget. It drew a larger than expected crowd. Everyone wants to know this secret. Of course, there are differing opinions on what exactly constitutes a small budget. The session leaders wanted to spend the time addressing some key topics, like: How to measure ROI of a digital campaign; how to maximize your cable TV ad buy, and others. All good questions and their suggestions were valid. Here’s the BIG point that I think was omitted. Everyone in the room needed to hear this: The best way to make the greatest impact with a small budget it to never compromise on the quality of the creative work.

The speakers went on to discuss measuring campaign results by engagements and click rates. If the clicks are sub-par compared to industry benchmarks work with the provider on different placement and targeting, they suggested. Well, maybe no one is clicking on it because it’s a lame ad. Maybe no one is responding to the print and broadcast ads because they’re not enticing. Maybe the average time spent on your website is low because the design is bad and the messaging is weak. I recognize that it is an age-old dilemma that smaller destinations have to compete with larger ones that have more marketing money. That is precisely why smaller destinations need creative messaging that is equally as good. Increasing the volume of bad advertising is not the answer regardless of what kind of deal you've negotiated with the media outlets.

The irony of the back-to-back sessions is that the first one was a fascinating inside look at the story of one of the greatest tourism branding and marketing campaigns of all time: Pure Michigan. The campaign not only increased visitation, it totally changed how people view the state of Michigan. Every destination needs to think about how to accomplish similar results on an appropriate scale.

“Too many ads that try not to go over the reader’s head end up beneath his notice.”
– Leo Burnett, member, Advertising Hall of Fame

This quote is from Leo Burnett, one of the great advertising minds of all time and founder of the global agency that still bears his name. He contributed to the United Airlines “Fly the Friendly Skies” and Allstate “Good Hands” campaigns as well as many others. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He is as quote worthy as Ben Franklin or Albert Einstein.

From my perspective as a partner in a small agency that happens to do a lot of advertising in the tourism sector, I found this quote particularly relevant. Agreeing with the quote requires believing two critical truths:

TRUTH – Advertising works. Period. It’s that simple. Abandoning advertising for complete investment in PR, blogging, SEO or anything else is risky behavior and potentially lethal to a brand. That’s not to say these tools don’t have value, but they can only go so far towards building your brand since you can’t control the message and where they appear.

TRUTH – Creativity gets results. I find this to be especially true in the travel and tourism world where inspiring and motivating people is the key to success. Great advertising grabs a reader’s attention and helps guide him or her through the sales funnel toward action. Lackluster ads, as Mr. Burnett points out, go completely unnoticed. Not only does that not help build brands, it actually damages brands by making them look dull.

We are looking forward to participating in the Virginia Association of Destination Marketing Organization’s 2018 Tourism Symposium next week in Charlottesville. As a corporate supporter of the organization we will be sponsoring a breakout speaker and both breakfasts.

The session we are sponsoring is a natural fit for us. It is about getting the most out of Google Analytics. As a firm that provides strategic guidance and creative services, generating results for our clients is our highest priority. The goals can vary widely from one campaign to another, so any tool that helps measure and quantify the results is helpful. Our team is creative and analytical at the same time. An unusual combination, I know.

Marketing tourism is quite different from marketing other products. For example, consumers don’t choose a destination the same way they would select a piece of equipment — based on statistics, horsepower, hard drive space, available warranty or even solely on price. People choose where to travel based on the destination’s uniqueness, its story and how powerfully it is presented.

As awesome as Google Analytics is — and we use it every day — here are some things it can’t measure:

  • Enthusiasm – Analytics measures a users time on site, but it can’t see if that person has a big smile on her face or calls out to family and friends “Hey, take a look at this.”
  • Awareness – How many times did a consumer see a print ad, online ad, video, billboard, social media post or bus wrap before finally taking action?
  • Inspiration – Potential visitors need more than to be informed. They need to be inspired. All marketing material, not just websites, need to feature concepts, words and imagery that make people say, “I want to experience that.”

We believe in the importance of all these things in conjunction with having the knowledge and ability to measure that which is measurable. That’s why we’re sponsoring this informative session.

We’re sponsoring breakfast because who doesn’t love bacon?

How crucial is a brand awareness phase to the success of a destination brand? It's the ultimate objective. It's the end game. The key to securing conversions. The whole ball of wax. You get the point. It's pretty darn important. Yet too many destinations ignore it. That's probably because they don't fully understand it.

The goal of brand awareness is not simply name recognition. Limiting brand awareness to recognition demonstrates an incomplete understanding of the concept much like the popular (and incredibly frustrating) notion that a logo is a brand. There are plenty of destinations that enjoy excellent name recognition and yet the public has inaccurate perceptions about the destination. Perhaps that's because the public's familiarity with the brand begins and ends with its name. Shame they didn't take seriously the need to make prospective visitors fully aware of the rest of the brand story — the most important stuff, the reason the brand is what it is.

If a marketing director – or in a scenario I prefer, a creative agency – is tasked with developing a campaign and strategy for a tourism destination the first question to be answered is “what is the objective?” The tactics, messaging and creative work would be very different for answers like: generate web traffic; build the opt-in database; promote attendance at a festival; or increase public awareness of our newly developed branding.

In the long term, investing in thorough brand awareness will make a destination brand stronger. Help the public understand the meaning of a tagline. Introduce them to the key differentiators in your community. Make them feel an attachment to the brand that is much more likely to come with familiarity. That kind of effort makes all the other objectives more realistic down the road.


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