NEWS ANALYSIS: Create a special sense of place

TCG's CEO Michael Hayman is an expert on destination marketing. This is an abridged version of his speech last week to the World Forum for Direct Investment in Bologna.

From Barnsley to Brazil, destinations are now recognising the urgent need to take action to compete for talent, tourism and trade.

Cities, regions and countries need to identify and communicate their distinguishing characteristics to achieve global recognition. It is no longer enough to be a just a ‘great location’ – places must become true destinations: places where people want to be.

Despite a competitive market, we have seen a standardisation of offer. We have witnessed the rise of the ‘clone town’. Differentiation is not only vital – but failing to stand out is, simply, failing.

Destinations must have the confidence to organise assets in a compelling way to stand out from the pack. The basics include an effectively functioning economy and sound infrastructure, but increasingly factors more readily associated with consumer-facing brands –such as unique identities, experiences and stories – become the keys to success.

Spot the difference
Public relations is set to be at the frontline in helping locations around the world become destinations. This is because good PR is central to harnessing and communicating the authentic ‘legends and stories’ that make people want to visit, and work in, these places.

The importance of communication in helping destinations to stand-out is well illustrated by the US Town, Cedar Bluff. It elected to position itself as ‘crappy capital of the world’ in reference to a fish that was prevalent in surr­ounding rivers.

This may be a dubious choice, but in TCG’s extensive work with destinations around the world, we found too many places offering the same experiences: looking and sounding the same.

In a recent study, one respondent told us: ‘There are over 1,000 locations in Europe alone, all promoting the same thing, looking identical and representing themselves in similar ways – through pictures of people playing golf, people in call centres, aeroplanes taking off. These places have become commodities, indistinguishable from one another, and offering little or no added value.’

In particular, traditionally successful destinations in first-world developed economies seem to have developed a pack mentality. They are facing threats from new, emerging destinations, challenging not just on the basis of economics, but by harnessing ‘soft’ assets and creating compelling identities.

After all, audiences’ expectations are rising. Their mobility is increasing, and they are becoming more selective. From investors to tourists, the harsh fact is that people are bombarded with a huge number of destination options. So if locations do not grasp their points of difference then talent, tourists and trade (the ‘three Ts’) will, literally, walk away.

More than anything, cities are emerging as the new leaders in destination marketing. They are becoming the ‘attack brands’ for regions and countries across the world, both defining identities and commanding attention.

In 2008, for the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population will live in cities. More than ever before this means they have the opportunity to become a country’s most powerful assets in terms of attracting the ‘three Ts’.

The smart nations are galvanising their efforts around their most vibrant and powerful cities, positioning them as true champions for their country.

TCG works with cities globally and we have identified a series of common challenges facing these destinations in their rise to fame: they demonstrate a real strength and depth of individual offers to the various audiences, from factors such as commerce and economic capability to culture and experience.

What is often missing, however, is a strong, integrated and compelling ‘umbrella’ proposition that unites the agendas of governments, relevant public and private organisations, local communities and surrounding regions.

Take two fictional cities, Gotham and Metropolis – they represent the worst that a destination can stand for – crime, congestion, dirt etc. Their antidote was, interestingly, Batman and Superman, respectively.

Our advice to cities around the world is that they do need superheroes. But these will be an elected mayor or a city ambassador. Cities need people who have the power to make decisions and the mandate to act.

These destination champions become advocates for the city, promoting its authentic stories and experiences and advocating its case to the world.

In the same way that Mayor Rudy Giuliani became the living embodiment of the courage displayed by the people of New York, less dramatic factors will associate individuals with stories that make up the destinations of the future.

Cities must recognise the opportunity that stands before them. Standout cites will organise themselves efficiently by uniting the destination strategies of their governments, public and private organisations, communities and surrounding regions to deliver a distinctive and authentic experience. They will adopt a ‘capital’ attitude by defining themselves in the minds of audience and developing their reputation by design rather than default.

There is no winning post; a one-off drive will not ensure success – but a constant process of renewal is needed.

We are planning more research including investigating the specific attributes that enable cities to stand out, and the role of organisations and communities in achieving destination status.

But our overall recommendation remains clear. Bland ‘vanilla marketing’ is not an option. Cities need to take heed of the saying ‘tastes like chicken isn’t a compliment’. Standing out from the pack is the only way forward.

Michael Hayman (l) is chief executive, The Communication Group plc, and author of The Power of Destinations: Why it Matters to be Different.



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