How do you market a city?

Places are huge, hazy concepts that mean different things to different people. So the efforts of the world’s leading cities to attract tourists are worth a look. How do they deal with multitudinous 'brands' and reach customers in a crowded market?

I looked at some of the digital advertising tactics of a handful of the world’s most visited cities.

(The most visited world cities, according to the 2017 Euromonitor International report, are: Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Singapore, Macau, Dubai, Paris, New York, Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur.)

The city as a house of brands

It’s extremely difficult to categorise places in any neat way according to the perceptions of their customers. Each destination usually has a very mixed offering and the value it provides for a visitor depends on his or her preferences and associations. So, places become the equivalent of a house of brands. A Unilever rather than an Apple.

There is a 2017 paper from the academic world on this phenomenon and its history (“Questioning a 'one size fits all' city brand: Developing a branded house strategy for place brand management” by Sebastien Zenker and Erik Braun). But it can also been seen played out across many recent place branding campaigns.

Watch this video on Singapore with the headline “Passion made Possible”. If you didn’t know the location already it would be difficult to decipher, and that really is the point. 

Whilst there’s a ‘young’ feel to the content, everything else about it is generalized to take in all kinds of leisure and tourism activity (“where foodies, explorers, collectors, action seekers, culture shapers, and socialisers meet”).

The ‘Passion made Possible’ brand fits over anything and everything.

One destination which has truly embraced this house of brands approach is Dubai, and it sets the standard for high volume place branding content. Visit Dubai’s YouTube channel has every type of slick video and is posting as much content as some of the world’s biggest consumer brands. This is a major step forward for the historic marketing of place and the old fashioned view of what a ‘tourist board’ does.

Here are some good examples of Visit Dubai video content that have been picked up across international press:

Anthony Joshua takes part in the world’s highest boxing match; the ‘Fight in the Sky’ at the Burj Al Arab:

Andre Agassi played tennis against Roger Federer on the same helipad in 2009 - see how far video production has come in nine years...

Something completely different - Shah Rukh Khan, or SRK as he’s known, welcomes a family to come and feel at home in his Dubai. At 17m views in its first two months, this beats Joshua in the early rounds, and most other place marketing content on YouTube.

There’s no limit for influencers

With a wild west of content, connections and channels for consumers to get their travel inspiration from, using influencers is a sensible tactic that’s become widely adopted in the travel industry. It all but guarantees reach, even if you have to be take care to be authentic.

We’ve already touched on Dubai’s approach, but the influencer list is long enough to accommodate all budgets and brands.

The Singapore tourist board has recruited Filipino model and actor, Mikael Daez, to front its latest travel videos. He has 150k followers on Facebook and double that number on Instagram and is clearly a personality that attracts coverage in South East Asia. 

You can find him on Instagram posting about food culture in Singapore.

There is a health warning here though as wanderlust doesn’t always come with brand exclusivity agreements. Mikael also earns plenty of digital reach with his adventures in the Maldives, including his honeymoon.

Influencers are both content and channel in one package. The range of personalities available for hire is great, from YouTubers to sports stars and national icons, but there are more and more brands competing for their endorsement.

The challenge for many destinations without Emirati-sized budgets is picking the right influencer to maximise ROI. There are a very few influencers that have true mass appeal across tourist demographics; families, millennials, businesses, and across all regions. The more creative and focused marketers can be when finding an influencer, the more value they’ll create.

Bangkok stands out amongst the ghost cities of Instagram

Another reason why influencers are so important to the marketing of destinations is to help make a place personal. We may admire landscapes but it’s people we relate to and often follow.

Browsing the Instagram accounts of the top 10 most visited cities, it’s very hard to spot any actual people. Yes, the colours and composition and scenery are all fantastic…but there’s nobody there. 

The one exception is Visit Thailand (Bangkok is number 2 on the world cities list). At least one in three images have a prominent person or group and it makes the branding that much stronger.

Visit Thailand has about the same follower numbers (150k) as Paris and New York’s official tourism account, although it lags behind Dubai (808k).

Seagulls or people – @visitlondon vs @tourismthailand, compare their Instagram feeds below...

london tourism

London

thailand instagram

Thailand

Quality digital advertising channels are king

Destinations and travel brands competing for footloose, attention-deficient consumers need to bank on reliable marketing channels. But targeting may be even more crucial because, as we’ve seen from the homogeneity of instagram posts and generalist place brands, the content won’t always stand head and shoulders above the market unless you can afford SRK or AJ.

It’s clear how competitive the popular travel sites are for international advertising spend. I was only 15 seconds into researching a Paris break and suddenly Tokyo is trying to turn my head.

tripadvisor search

Of course, when I move on to my mobile, ad banners can be more annoying and less effective. It’s also clear how well the major sites are protecting their product with strict creative guidelines that safeguard the user experience; TripAdvisor allows nothing that comes close to their own brand or style, no expansion on mouse-over, nothing flashy (“punch the monkey”), the list goes on.

Travel aggregators can though provide powerful advertising services throughout the customer journey. SkyScanner, selling their monthly reach of 60m consumers, work with brands to craft such a range of digital advertising opportunities.

skyscanner ads

Much like the influencer market, the challenge here is in running nimble, cost-effective campaigns. Many complimentary brands that are working hard to sell the same destination – cities, hotels, events, major attractions – are also competing for the same ad space, driving up costs.

One tactic which has been used widely to increase resources and creative assets is partnership working. Typically this can involve a national or region tourist board and related organisations from the travel industry, for example national airline carriers or major hotel chains.

A look at Visit Britain’s current partnership efforts shows how much creativity and investment this strategy can bring. There are targeted campaigns to sell Britain as a destination in China and Australia, and partnerships with film studios to sell Britain as a location from iconic stories like Paddington Bear.

great britain china campaign

Google Sidewalk Labs – reimagining place

A final word from Google, which is reimagining the relationship between digital, time and place.

Google Sidewalk Labs is creating a whole new district on the Toronto waterfront, using technology to tackle every aspect of urban design. This is legitimate partnership working with a government agency and the local community, seeking to design a neighbourhood ‘from the internet up’.

sidewalk labs

What’s notable is that place branding and marketing has begun in earnest, even before the destination physically exists. This might not be new - all retail developments or major investments in public realm are marketed ‘off-plan’ – but the scale at which Waterfront Toronto will use digital to establish and evolve itself as a destination is impressive in its ambition.

What are the implications for the digital marketing of place?

For a start, just look at the Sidewalk Labs website. Added to the tech brand look and feel, there is the range of democratic place-making initiatives that Google is operating here – roundtables, pop-up stations, design jams, a kids camp, a fellows programme for 19 to 24 year olds. (See the Future Laboratory for a brilliantly written primer on Google Sidewalk Labs and the future of branded cities.)

If people queue to visit an Amazon Go store, imagine the possibility for tourism to this Google town. Visitors may be more than happy to trade heritage for innovation and the chance to co-exist with and shape their destination through digital.

This would fit with a wider trend of tourists having increasing expectations of the destinations they visit. There is a greater mix than ever of multi-channel, multi-brand campaigns selling locations with something for everyone. And the disparity between destination resources is forcing the hand of marketers.

For example, Visit Britain had a budget of around £50m for 2016/17, whilst the Dubai equivalent tourism body (DTCM) spent $20m on a single campaign with Emirates. For most marketers without these resources, the challenge is being increasingly creative and targeted with advertising in order to have impact.

Matthew Davis

Published 21 March, 2018 by Matthew Davis

Matthew is a B2B marketing professional and writer. He has experience across consultancy, social investment, digital and UK government policy.

Most recently Matthew has led marketing at start ups in the field of mental health and supply chain sustainability.

You can contact him on LinkedIn or email matthewdavis100@gmail.com

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