A brand new day for the USA

Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Brand USA, explains why "marketing the welcome" is so important and the unique requirements needed to market a destination effectively in China in this wide-ranging conversation with PRWeek's Gideon Fidelzeid prior to the Fahlgren Mortine-hosted Travel & Tourism Roundtable

Gideon Fidelzeid: Your fiscal year 2014 ROI study on Brand USA’s marketing efforts reports over the past two years you have generated 2 million incremental visitors, $6.5 billion incremental spending, and almost $15 billion in total economic impact. How did you accomplish this?

Chris Thompson: We have a very close relationship with Tourism Economics, which is part of Oxford Economics. This is a top analytics-based consulting firm to the tourism sector.

We literally have a footprint around the world. We have 13 offices and we just opened our fourth one in China. We are actively engaged in some significant way in 30 markets around the world. We have 500 partners that actively invest in our cooperative marketing programs.

Still, we wanted to figure out what our impact was on visitor numbers and spend. That’s where Oxford came in. They came out with definitive numbers indicating that in our first year the incremental increase in visitation was 1.1 million visitors, $3.4 billion in spend, $7.4 billion in overall economic impact, we supported 47,000 jobs, created $2 billion worth of income that was paid to those jobs, $1 billion in sales tax that was created at the local, state and national level, and a 47 to 1 return on investment. That was FY 2013.

And what was really helpful is that we got those numbers two weeks before we met with leaders on Capitol Hill. When they saw the impact, we were reauthorized.

Fidelzeid: How did "marketing the welcome," a foundational factor in your overall outreach strategy, come about?

Thompson: We created a Statement of Purpose, which is Brand USA’s mission and vision, and then five foundational elements. Our mission is to increase international visitation to the US and improve its image. The vision is to be the best-in-class national destination marketing organization [DMO] and all the economic benefits that brings to our country across all sectors.

When Arne Sorensen, president and CEO of Marriott, joined our board about two years ago he said to me, "We have to make the world realize we welcome them and we thank them for coming to our country. Marketing the welcome is very important." So we coined that as part of our marketing foundation. So many of our programs and activities are built around that philosophy.

Fidelzeid: Could you elaborate a bit more on the unique value Brand USA brings?

Thompson: Most cities and states have dedicated marketing arms. There are destinations and brands that have been promoting internationally for decades. How do we add to what they’re doing without stealing value?

We have the ability to leverage this amazing brand of the USA in ways nobody else can. We’re direct to the consumer with our brand message that goes to numerous markets across broadcast, digital, and social. We have trade relationships in markets. Then, about 50% of our resources are spent in cooperative marketing with partners. That’s 500 partners that have seen the value we bring. We have created our owned assets,

which are ways we tell our story on behalf of the entirety of the United States.

DMOs clearly see the value proposition, seeing ways to leverage our resources in ways they wouldn’t be able to, particularly in international markets. Take Visit Florida, which I led before my current role, as an example. The state will get 100 million visitors this year, but 90% come from the US and only 10% is international visitation. But Brand USA is 100% international, which gives us the ability to really have a leverage point that most organizations don’t have.

Our base group grew from 89 in the first year to 334 in the second year, 450 in the third year, and now more than 500 partners, large and small. Some of those partners have millions to spend, others only $5,000, but because we’ve been able to put together this foundation of owned assets and then these cooperative marketing channels through borrowing assets, we have the ability to do what we do.

Fidelzeid: One would assume Brand USA was created because the US had a brand problem. What was the issue with the country’s reputation? How did you tackle it? Can you gauge improvement?

Thompson: The biggest problem we had – still do – is the perception of many around the world that the US is not a welcoming country. Oxford Economics did a study that looked at the first 10 years of the new millennium. During that period, the world travel market was growing in the healthy double digits, but the US’ share was declining. At one point we had a 17% share of the market. Over those 10 years, it went down to 12%. We’re up to 13.4% now, but those perceptions I spoke of were a major hit from which we are still recovering.

We were also the only country that didn’t have a national tourism office, that did not have a DMO trying to promote the entirety of the United States and put the umbrella over that, particularly in international marketing, where even the biggest brands and destinations have limited budgets.

How do we tackle this? It goes back to marketing the welcome. But how do you do that in actuality? We have tremendous resources through the federal governments in the embassies and in the commercial service. In many cases, those places where they process visas are not the most welcoming. So we’ve gone in, in cooperation with the Department of State and our embassies, and actually helped create much more welcoming environments. That even includes improving the physical process of getting a visa.

In the US, we have undertaken similar efforts at our major gateway airports. We went into Chicago’s new international terminal and helped them transform it. Remember, this is the first time many international travelers are on US soil. It’s the first impression. People need to feel welcomed. We want to thank them for coming. We also understand that security is a huge issue. So we work very closely with Customs and Border Protection, among other entities, to make sure when travelers first enter the States, things are handled in a hospitable way.

The numbers indicated in our FY 2014 report prove our efforts are helping.

Fidelzeid: Can you pinpoint one specific example of how Brand USA helped a particular state or region market in ways they couldn’t do themselves?

Thompson: Travel South is a regional organization that represents the 12 southeastern states, with the exclusion of Florida. It’s really the Old South, traditional south. It has created strong inroads in many western European markets, but it really wanted to make headway in emerging markets, such as China.

That is obviously a huge market to tap into. Last year, 100 million Chinese traveled. It's the largest outbound travel market in the world. There has also been a 50% increase in visa applications in China, due in great part to an agreement reached late last year between the US and China.

Following in the footsteps of assets we already created, Travel South produced in-language videos for many of the major emerging markets they wished to penetrate. These are truly guides of inspiration. And they live on our site as well as Travel South’s.

The other thing we brought was an understanding of the Chinese market they simply did not have. Marketing digitally in China is like nowhere else in the world. We learned that firsthand. Our discoveramerica.com digital platform was not resonating. We did some research and came up with Go USA, which was the URL we needed that would resonate in not only the Chinese market, but other Asian markets. We built a whole new digital platform – gousa.cn for China, gousa.tw for Taiwan – and it provides a great platform that many brands and destinations can invest in and become part of with city pages and microsites to market within China.

International visitation to Travel South’s region grew 21% year over year. Our work with them certainly played a part in that. And it is just one example.

Fidelzeid: What is the USA’s brand right now?

Thompson: It’s best captured by the closing statement in a video created by our AOR J. Walter Thompson: "The United States has awesome possibilities that welcome everybody." The "welcome" part we’ve spoken about. Those awesome possibilities are really a selling point. The US should be that dream destination everyone aspires to visit. Most people don’t really understand the full scope of the US because all they know is what they heard through movies or music, what they learned in school, and so on.

And a perfect example of how that enters our marketing is the 40-minute film we’ve helped create called National Parks Adventure, which will be released early next year in nearly 40 countries. This film pays tribute to the US’ national parks. And it’s timed to coincide with the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. There are 400 national parks in this country. Probably two dozen or so are iconic the world over. It’s a key part of the US’ allure that amplifies the brand.

Fidelzeid: Tapping into your nearly three decades in the travel and tourism sector, what would you say are the most important factors marketers in this sector should focus on when promoting their own entities?

Thompson: All marketers, in this space and outside it, are storytellers at their core. Embrace that and always look to hone that skill. But if there’s one piece of advice I’d give to any marketer it’s this: It’s impossible to be everything to everybody, but you should be something to everybody.

And here’s a terrific example of storytelling. Peter Greenberg is the travel editor for CBS News. We’re now doing a program with him called Discover America. It’s a series of TV programs where he goes to all 50 states and each story is told through the eyes of a celebrity that either grew up there or was notably defined by it.

Coming from someone such as that, the stories are particularly compelling and told in a way only they can. It’s great content that will stand the test of time and each state can benefit from it for years to come.

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