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A Struggle For Identity

Puerto Rico has failed to establish a brand identity for tourism—a critical component for competing with other destinations.


June 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

What are we selling?

Come and discover the sounds of the continent of Puerto Rico where the shining star of the Caribbean puts it all within your reach…because you’re not dreaming, you’re in Puerto Rico USA.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. has spent some $570.7 million over the past 17 years on marketing campaigns to double the number of tourists visiting the island, a CARIBBEAN BUSINESS investigation revealed.

While the number of tourists and expenditures doubled during the period, the Tourism Co. marketing budget nearly tripled.

This raises serious questions about whether the Tourism Co., the government agency in charge of the island's marketing and promotional campaigns, has received an acceptable return on the investment of more than a half-billion dollars in taxpayer money (adjusted for inflation).

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS found that in 1985, every $1 million invested in marketing, the destination generated $72 million in tourist expenditures. In 2001, every $1 million invested in marketing generated only $65 million in tourist expenditures. This 23.6% decrease is evidence of a marketing problem.

Based on success rates achieved for marketing efforts in the late 1980s, if that trend had continued, the amount of money invested in marketing in 2001 should have attracted 4.6 million tourists for an economic impact of $3.4 billion in visitor expenditures.

At a time when uniqueness is prized as one of the leading tourist attractions, experts suggest that Puerto Rico continues to struggle with its identity.

In the past 17 years, the island has changed its marketing strategy four times. Do you remember?

  • Puerto Rico: The Shining Star of the Caribbean
  • Discover the Continent of Puerto Rico: So Much Within Your Reach
  • Sounds of Puerto Rico: Only Puerto Rico Puts It All Within Your Reach—Puerto Rico USA
  • You’re Not Dreaming, You’re in Puerto Rico

Beginning in fiscal year 1985, while the island was promoted as the Shining Star of the Caribbean, the marketing budget increased 20% for a 38% jump in number of tourists and a 30% increase in visitor expenditures over a four-year period. In the next four-year period, with the same campaign, the marketing budget increased 18% for a 9% tourist increase and a 4% increase in visitor expenditure. The diminished increases can be partly attributed to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when marketing efforts were required for damage control of the island’s image.

In fiscal ’92, the Tourism Co. adopted the Discover the Continent marketing campaign. Over the four-year period thru ’96, there was a 4% increase in budget and the number of tourists increased 7%, accompanied by a 7% increase in visitor expenditures. In January of 1994, San Juan endured an environmental disaster in the form of a major oil spill, another damage control issue.

Sounds of Puerto Rico began to be used as the marketing campaign in fiscal ‘97. In the period to 2000, the marketing budget increased 16%. Hurricane Georges struck in September of 1998 and the lingering image of the natural disaster diminished the number of tourists to a 3% increase with a 9% increase in visitor expenditure.

Local, national, and internationally known experts say the problem is that the Tourism Co.'s marketing campaigns convey a blurry image to prospective travelers.

"We found that most tourist destinations are trying to do too much with their branding approach; it’s either too big or too big in scope," said Al Ries, marketing consultant at Ries & Ries Focusing Consultants in Atlanta. "For example, the slogan You’re Not Dreaming, You’re in Puerto Rico can represent any destination if you drop the word Puerto Rico. There is no way anyone will associate the idea with Puerto Rico."

Milton Segarra, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., indicated, however, that branding and people’s perception of the island are of utmost importance to the agency.

"The campaigns currently running locally (Ven, celebra tu isla) and in the U.S. You're Not Dreaming solidify all the attributes that Puerto Rico has as a brand name," Segarra said. "It is true that constant fluctuations always affect any product."

The textbook description of a brand is "a distinguishing name and/or symbol" that provides some identity to the goods or services being offered while distinguishing it from the competitors. It is this distinction that helps consumers make choices in a cluttered market.

"We have been the Shining Star, the Continent, Sounds of Puerto Rico, and now You’re Not Dreaming, You’re in Puerto Rico. It’s time we develop a slogan that can transcend political parties and, for that matter, executive directors," said Rick Newman, president of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association.

According to Ries, Puerto Rico's slogan is too general and therefore doesn't register in the mind of the consumer.

"Why not forget about positioning Puerto Rico as a whole? Why not focus on just positioning the city of San Juan? If the Tourism Co. can make Americans die to go to San Juan, when the tourists arrive they will explore the entire island," said Ries, who has done marketing consulting for the destinations of Belgium and Jamaica.

Puerto Rico isn’t the only one having difficulty. Ries doesn't believe any Caribbean island is doing a good job of positioning itself, which definitely creates an opportunity for Puerto Rico.

"Most people can't associate a strong idea with any Caribbean island," Ries said. "The notion to do something long-term calls for a destination to come up with some kind of publicity stunt."

Ries suggested that San Juan reenact an event that emphasizes to visitors its historic value. "Forget about positioning Puerto Rico," Ries reiterated, "and just narrow the focus with something symbolic to the island."

Consistency is key. A good marketing program—with a single theme—should run for decades.

"Effective marketing is essential today. In the 1990s, branding started to be practical in tourism," said Alastair Morrison, professor of marketing & tourism at Purdue University’s Hospitality & Tourism Research Center in Indiana. "Tourism destinations are borrowing the branding idea from what it has learned with products. Some offshore foreign countries are more advanced when it comes to their marketing," he said.

In today’s cutthroat tourism industry, only destinations with clear market positions and appealing attractions remain in consumers’ minds when they book vacations. Although travel agents suggest destinations, make the arrangements, and provide support services, the choice of destination clearly is the consumer’s.

The tourism industry is using branding as a means of emphasizing the feel of a place and of developing its personality. The branded destination becomes more than just a place to go. It becomes an experience, one unlike any other.

This branding mentality has been observed in recent campaigns for Australia, Come and Say G’day; New Zealand, 100% Pure New Zealand; Montana, Big Sky Country, and Texas, It’s a Whole Other Country.

The key to building a brand is to identify what it stands for then to effectively deliver that message. While this is difficult in today’s marketplace, it is not impossible.

In fiscal 2001, the Tourism Co. invested $48.6 million in marketing strategies that most agree hasn’t defined the island’s image.

"When we worked in Jamaica, which has the largest mountain range in the Caribbean, we felt it was geographically kind of like Hawaii," Ries said. "We tried to get Jamaica to position itself as the Hawaii of the Caribbean, because the place to start is with the mind of the prospect, and most people know Hawaii."

Slogans are slogans

Most destinations constantly change their slogans. To be successful, however, experts say a destination must stick with one slogan.

Take New York and Virginia, for example. They’ve used the I Love New York and Virginia Is for Lovers slogans, respectively, for 30 years.

"Those two states have stuck with their slogans and positioned themselves with an image they wanted to create," Morrison said.

Other destinations with clear market positions include Paris, known to consumers as the City of Lights; New York City, which for three decades has been positioned as The Big Apple; Rome, the Eternal City, and Minnesota, which is said to be the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Puerto Rico’s slogan, on the other hand, has changed on average every three or four years. The Shining Star of the Caribbean campaign was revamped several times but ran for seven years, from 1985 to 1995, under Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon’s administration.

As soon as the government changed, however, so did the campaign.

Pedro Rossello’s administration used the Continent of Puerto Rico from 1992 to 1996, then changed it to the Sounds of Puerto Rico, which ran from 1997 to 2000.

"A brand needs to stay; to change it is a terrible mistake because a destination begins to lose its identity," said Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. "Making dramatic changes causes the brand to become unfamiliar to consumers, which is a waste of marketing dollars."

Puerto Rico was without a marketing campaign from November 2000 to October 2001, due to the transition between administrations and to petty political warfare that left the Tourism Co. without a confirmed executive director for that period.

It wasn’t until October 2001, one month after the events of Sept. 11, that the Tourism Co., under Milton Segarra’s leadership, unveiled the You’re Not Dreaming, You’re in Puerto Rico campaign.

The battle for customers will be fought over hearts, not price

What differentiates a Caribbean or Mediterranean island from its nearest neighbor? It’s rarely sun and sand.

Experts say tourists visit, and revisit one place instead of another if they can empathize with its people and its values. The battle for customers in tomorrow’s destination marketplace will not be fought over price but over hearts and minds—and this is why the tourism industry must rely on branding.

"There has been no branding continuity in Puerto Rico. People don’t get what Puerto Rico is; those who do, know that the island is more than just sun, sand, and surf," Morrison said. "Puerto Rico has not been effectively positioned. In my opinion, Costa Rica and Dominica have done a good job of positioning themselves as eco-tourism-based destinations. The U.S. Virgin Islands has also done well with its America’s Caribbean slogan. It has been effective, and they have been sticking to it."

In short, Morrison believes the key for a destination is to find its brand essence and then to come up with a positioning statement. The slogan is the last part.

According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), there is a clear contemporary trend toward highly branded destinations.

The WTO predicts that the next century will mark the emergence of tourism destinations as a fashion accessory. The choice of vacation destination will help define the identity of travelers and set them apart from the hordes of other tourists.

Leisure travel often is an involved experience; it’s extensively planned, excitedly anticipated, and fondly remembered. Tapping into the power of such emotional appeal, tourism destination brands are beginning to reach beyond the tourism industry. Many of the brands at the leading edge of destination marketing are seeking to position themselves as place brands, whereby whole countries, states, and regions are embarking on brand-building initiatives that are inclusive of tourism and economic development.

The need to develop a clear identity based on reality

Most tourism destinations have five-star resorts, hotels, and attractions. Every country claims to have a unique culture and heritage. Each place claims to have the friendliest and most customer-focused population. Nowadays, hotel properties are no longer distinguishing factors.

Given this extremely competitive tourism environment, marketing experts say destinations must develop a clear identity, or brand, based on reality while reflecting their core strengths and their personality.

For example, London-based Locum Destination Consulting, Europe’s leading destination consultancy firm, was hired to design an integrated national destination strategy for Poland. The company created five Polska brands, each targeting Poland’s most competitive and most distinctive tourism offerings to its various markets.

"The strategy created for Destination Poland included the tailoring of destination products to suit different consumer expectations in different target markets," explained Richard Tibbott, CEO of Locum Destination Consulting. "The current phase of development of Poland’s tourism economy is based on its world-class natural assets, such as endless forests and wilderness, High Tatras Mountains, and the Masurian Lake District. Our team forged a framework for the development of high quality, ecologically-sustainable, and culturally-authentic Polish rural tourism."

Building and maintaining brand value in a crowded marketplace is essential to business success. As a result, brand management is quickly shifting from a peripheral marketing concern to the core business strategy.

The P (politics) factor

"Politics is the single greatest barrier for creating brand equity," said Bill Siegel, CEO of Toronto-based Longwoods International, which specializes in research strategy, branding, and return on investment. "I worked with one major state that has gone through four slogans in the past 10 years."

Longwoods developed Canada’s World Next Door slogan, which ran for 10 years and won at least 90 awards. The company also changed Hawaii’s slogan from The Most Beautiful Islands in the World to Hawaiian Islands of Aloha, which has been running for seven years.

Tourism, for the most part, is seen as the vehicle for smaller communities to contribute to their destination’s sense of identity and as a source of economic viability. It understandably then attracts the interest of government, and indeed, representatives of the industry have political agendas.

There are four reasons, experts say, for government intervention in tourism: the complexity of the tourist product, its institutional structure, guardianship of the resource base, and market failure. That these reasons are often accepted implies the government has wider legitimacy.

Others allege that any rationalization of public sector management is based upon five general principles: public interest, public service, effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability.

It is difficult to determine, however, what is in the public’s interest, and there may well be shifts in consensus or interpretation over time.

"The tourism industry in Puerto Rico is a big part of the economy. While it is accepted that many politicians have experience in the sector, politicians need to understand that Puerto Rico as a tourism destination can’t speak to the world directly; it needs travel partners who can get the message across," said Tibbott.

"Politicians must also understand that the tourism agencies have long lead times," he added, "and investments in destination brand propositions need to be recovered over a number of years. They simply can’t feature over-engineered brands that have ever-changing images, tag lines, or concepts. Destination brands need real investment if they are to have longevity. It is the job of the politician to secure consensus and adequate investment in the branding of destinations. Then they should leave the specifics to the professionals."

One of the trends Siegel sees is the privatization of more entities, a positive shift that removes government from tourism, where political pressures are the strongest.

"When you have a campaign for a long period of time, it creates demand and a return on investment. That’s the wave of the future," Siegel said.

When asked if any Caribbean destination campaign sticks out, Siegel responded, "I’m still waiting to see a consistent campaign in the Caribbean.

"It’s difficult nowadays to keep track of who is doing what. Everybody is now trying to jump on the eco-tourism bandwagon. A destination must first identify what makes it unique and appealing, because there are a lot of beach destinations. That’s exactly what we did for Hawaii. We studied the culture, the people, and the Aloha spirit, which differentiated the destination from Mexico and the Caribbean islands," Siegel concluded.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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