A Short Essay on Destination Branding

Working with a destination is arguably the toughest brand assignment. Experts, such as Simon Anholt think that you cannot “brand” a place in the traditional sense of the word. As someone who got involved in a couple of place branding projects, I tend to agree. Here is why.

Based on my personal experience, many branding projects (and most of the destination branding projects) start with a common misconception: People focus too much on the brand (the noun), and too little on branding (the process.)

Branding, in its very essence, is a change management process. It helps key players agreeing on a shared future, engaging them in the creation process, identifying the most important implications, and distributing responsibility. When you focus solely on the brand (the destination) instead of branding (the journey), you cannot avoid falling into the “decoration trap”: Locals think that brand is visual identity (more specifically the logo,) because at the end of the day that is all they see.

Maybe when you say you have it all, people unconsciously understand you don't have anything.
Maybe when you say you have it all, people unconsciously understand you do not have anything.

That is not a problem unique to destination branding. When a company or organization launches a new logo without telling the story of its journey and announcing the overarching idea behind the change, outsiders tend to zero in on the logo, again because that’s all they can see.

Branding process is about discovering the soul of the brand, its purpose, its story, its essence. The overarching idea should be able bring the masses together. However, most brands tend to overlook the larger system within which they operate. After all, every organization is a part of a bigger system,  playing a unique role for the health of the overall system. So, when a destination does not acknowledge its role within the system in which it operates, it tends to conclude that the place “has it all.” For example, Bulgaria’s destination brand is a clear example of such thinking. It seems like they tried to please all of their internal stakeholders, a deadly mistake that leaves you with a common denominator, which means little to your external stakeholders.

That said, one thing I truly appreciate is that Bulgaria separated its place brand from its tourism brand. Very few places do that. However, they could have asked themselves: “Who really visits us?” Is it the Romanians? Turks? Russians? Western Europeans? Who do we really want to attract? After having prioritized their preferred markets, then they could have focused on the decision-making criteria of those people, and proceeded with their design.

No matter how yummy a logo is, it will not make a difference for a destination. After all, for every destination, there exists a stereotype. Instead, what should be done is to change everybody’s (foreigners as well as locals) perceptions over time. That’s a tall order, especially when such strong prejudices exist. 

Many destination branding projects spend valuable resources to identify the stereotypes of foreigners and try to “correct” them. That is almost an impossible task. Instead of focusing on stereotypes, such places should focus on their archetypes. That could lead to a powerful brand promise. Here is what Bulgaria could have learned from the mistakes of the Czech Republic. 

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