Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Branding Vermont (no, it’s not a town!)

I had a burger at McDonald's the other day and it got me to thinking about the recent Branding exercise that State tourism and marketing professionals like to conduct once or twice a decade to make sure that Vermont’s tourism industry has the knowledge it needs to make sure visitors return again and again.

In the latest Branding study (which I learned about by participating in a really excellent webinar sponsored by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce), not only were traditional Vermont brand characteristics reviewed, but several nuances were explored.

It turns out, probably to no one’s surprise, that while people’s perception of Vermont as a natural, unspoiled, and friendly place to visit has remained virtually unchanged for well over a century, what people like to do when they are here varies quite a lot, depending where they are from.

There are understandable differences between summer and winter visitors, but the over-arching “take-away” from the webinar was that if we want to reach our Vermont market, we should focus on words and phrases (or images) that convey emotions associated with “Pure and Simple, Unhurried, and Unspoiled;” “Farmland and Forests, Mountains and Lakes, Fresh Air, Fresh Tracks, and Beautiful;” and “Down Home, Local Color, and Authenticity.”

Before I express my opinions about the study’s implications for the arts and cultural sector, let me make a few observations about Brands and what they are for.

First, a “Brand” is a snapshot or an articulation of people’s feelings and opinions about a product at a point in time and it can change over time. Vermont has a very powerful Brand because, as the study points out up front, it has remained almost unchanged since at least 1891. But at its most basic, a Brand is little more than a tool that guides marketing and promotional professionals who are trying to figure out what messages to send out about their product.

Brands can change. Remember the very popular product that told us its fans would rather fight than switch? Sure. Smoking cigarettes was once thought to project an aura of cool sophistication, of worldly knowledge. Now they project an aura of slow, wasting death by cancer or emphysema. The Philip Morris Brand became so associated with bad medical outcomes that the corporation had to change its name.

There is probably not a single Vermonter or Vermont vacationer alive who couldn’t put his or her finger on most of the key attributes of the Vermont Brand if asked. But one of the really useful aspects of a Brand study is that it allows you to not just consider and understand what your Brand is, but also to explore what your Brand could be. Where are the “gaps” between what we offer here in Vermont, and what our visitors know about what we offer?

I can tell you one. The Arts. But hold on for one more minute…

Rather than dwell on what I believe are some gaps and omissions in the study (which I hope future studies will address), let me share what I believe was good about the study.

It revealed a lot of really interesting information about the various markets we focus on (MA, NYC, and Canada Metro) and the behaviors of our visitors:

First, nearly half of all visitors to Vermont stay with family and friends! This is a startling statistic and tells me that a significantly larger effort must start IMMEDIATELY to inform Vermont residents about all the amazing cultural (and recreational and astisanal food) offerings that are easily accessible to our out-of-town guests. Right now, the State of Vermont barely advertises what it offers to its own citizens, which means we are missing an opportunity to reach nearly half our visitors from away.

Second, NYC visitors are more likely to stay longer, spend more money, and attend more cultural events than visitors from Vermont or Canada. This tells me that if you want to promote your cultural offerings you might want to focus your attention first on the NYC market.

Third, Canadians (actually they were Canadian Metro visitors—from Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto) like to shop. Well, okay, who doesn’t? But this is mentioned in the study as being a statistically significant difference from visitors from Massachusetts and NYC, which means that if you run a boutique selling fine arts and crafts (attention Frog Hollow, Artisan’s Hand, Vermont Artisan Designs!) , you might want to give some thought to the creating a Canadian campaign—maybe collaboratively?

Fourth, Massachusetts visitors are looking for quality, “good-value,” day-trip offerings. Again—aren’t we all? If you have a couple of packages (like dinner for two and a show, say, in Brattleboro for $150/couple), you might want to consider advertising this in the Boston, Springfield, Holyoke markets.

Fifth, two statistics opened up a whole new world of possibilities. It turns out that nearly a fifth of respondents from NYC and more than a third of Canadians respondents DON’T come to Vermont because it “doesn’t offer activities they prefer.” Really? We have lots of cultural offerings and lots of great places to shop—the two things that our survey reveals distinguishes those market segments from the others. Aren’t we telling them what the cultural offerings and shopping possibilities are? I guess not.

Also, more than a quarter of respondents from Canada and NYC have never even considered visiting Vermont before—a clear indicator that our attempts to reach NEW visitors (folks not already in Tourism and Ski Association databases) are falling on deaf ears half the time. Surely we can do better than this…?

Finally, In terms of “competitive positioning” against other vacation destinations, Vermont has some great opportunities to become a leader in offering a diversity of experiences at a reasonable price that complements our unspoiled landscape and warm, friendly natives.

So getting down to the take-away lesson for me wasn’t really all that hard. All I had to do was drive by the golden arches of McDonald's…

Vermont is known for its unhurried pace, unspoiled landscape, beautiful, natural vistas and warm, inviting people. It’s known for its outdoor recreation—particularly skiing; artisanal foods—particularly fine cheeses; and maple products—particularly syrup and bright leaves. This is what has been for years advertised by the Tourism Department, in collaboration with its two primary partners, the Vermont Ski Areas Association and Cabot Cheese. All good.

McDonalds is known for its hamburgers—in all their infinite variety. It’s what they have done well at, it’s what they have advertised, it’s what most people think of when they are asked, “McDonald sells _____?”

The difference between Vermont and McDonald's is that of late, McDonald's has spent more and more time advertising its chicken, salads, and shakes—products that, in fact, it is NOT well-known for. The result: McDonald's stock has doubled since 2006.

Meanwhile, Vermont is still marketing and advertising the same products and services to pretty much the same people who already know Vermont and are already inclined to visit.

Maybe it’s time to steal a play from the McDonald’s playbook.

Maybe it’s time to let the world know Vermont has a few other products that are high-quality, unspoiled, a good value, and easy to get to.

Let’s start with the Arts.

If we do, I’ll bet the Vermont Brand will be a bit different the next time it is studied.


William Hays said...

Very good, Alex. Your observation is right on the money (forgive the pun). There is little room for improvement on the images of Vermont as a place to ski, get maple syrup and see beautiful leaves. But your insights point out that we can clearly improve the image we have among visitors (and potential visitors) in many areas that are now let go by the wayside.

The arts would be a fine start!

Dianne Shullenberger said...

How about a visual image that can be posted around the state at town halls, local stores, especialy the mutipurpose ma and pa stores. This (state wide) image would alet visitors that this place is the source for information about the art opportunities available in the community. The local artists, museums,community centers, etc. would provide their own brochure.I venture to say the image would be seen in MANY places and be a new brand for Vt.