How the ‘experience economy’ is changing nation branding

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One of the first rules in our industry is to never reveal your age, but I’m prepared to break that to show how far nation branding has changed over the course of my career and why it’s more complex now than ever before.

The first ever travel and tourism campaign I was involved in was way back in 1993 when Star TV, the pan regional network I worked for, was selected as a media partner for Thailand’s first major global destination campaign. It was a heady, exciting time, and the big glossy TV commercials of sweeping beaches which positioned Thailand as an exotic destination resulted in enormous success and tourists came in droves.

Nation branding more or less continued in a similar thread, almost always exclusively on TV, until about six to eight years ago. All of a sudden, the explosion of social media and emergence of new immersive ways to tell stories started to make the world feel like a much smaller place and within our reach. Travellers and would-be tourists could experience faraway destinations in a more intimate and engaging way via pictures and video on social media, interactives, and, more recently, VR and AR. The way that consumers could view countries had changed, and the nation branding strategies in the travel industry had to change too.

The triggers for today’s travellers to plan, book and pay have transformed and are heavily dependent on numerous influencers and their experiences. There still remains an important place for the big glossy far-reaching TV ads, but TV has become part of a wider suite of touchpoints. It is no longer a case of a single creative execution being transmitted in a single way globally. Instead, we are identifying and segmenting audiences, and tailoring the creative approach depending on the platform, specific consumer set and their behaviour.

Many of the conversations that I had with Tourism Ministers and Travel and Tourism CEOs at World Travel Market in London this month were about how to create multiple experiences via TV, digital hubs of interactive mobile-first immersive content, and social media. These are exciting conversations because the different platforms give us new creative canvases, but they are also data rich and help us and our clients engage with and understand the audience more deeply. This month’s Destination India campaign which ran across CNN TV, digital and social is a great example of how to utilise platforms, data and content.

However, as the platforms have multiplied and evolved, the storytelling and creative approach has also matured as we entered what I call the ‘experience economy’ - a place where audiences want to feel the country, not just see it. The term has been used before in other industries but perfectly describes what we and our partners want to achieve. Through our branded content studio, Create, international consultancy arm CNN TASK, and partners such as the UNWTO, we recognised how both traditional and new platforms could be vehicles for more personality driven storytelling.

As a result, rather than show a country’s landscape or its people through a glossy, detached lens, many of the most successful campaigns now present the country as an experience undertaken by a protagonist who can be identified with. Depending on the target audience for that destination, this could be via a blogger, travel writer, business person, a family.

The Incredible India campaign that ran on CNN as an extension of the country’s nation branding took this approach. The campaign ran globally and therefore needed a global appeal that would still strike a chord with key audience segments that India Ministry of Tourism wanted to attract. To achieve this, we focused on how tourists perceive India in their own unique and individual manner by using various narrators - a Brisbane-based fashion designer, a US travel blogger, a London-based culinary expert and a Scottish professional golfer. Seeing India from the perspective of these four diverse personalities was truly inspiring.

However, it is certainly not a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While there has clearly been much change in platforms and storytelling for nation branding, two perennial core ingredients remain vital in the age of the ‘experience economy’.

Firstly, uniqueness – defining a nation’s USP to make the country stand out from competitors. For instance, South East Asian countries share similar attributes such as fast-track economies, scenic landscapes and vibrant populations. While these are all strong qualities, it’s vital that Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia all stand out in their own way to differentiate themselves from each other as well as other Asian destinations. Vietnam is a good example of a country that has identified and made a virtue of such uniqueness. Working with the Hanoi tourism board, we have focused on celebrating the country’s cuisine while positioning the capital as a ‘food paradise’. Through this prism, Vietnam was brought to life through stories about its vivid ‘foodie’ culture using local artists, photographers, bloggers and Instagrammers. This promise of an authentic experience was a powerful campaign that resonated strongly amongst CNN’s viewers.

Secondly, consistency – there needs to be strong discipline and stakeholder alignment across all entities to convert this uniqueness into a strong, ubiquitous message across all touchpoints. The creative approach will be different on mobile compared to TV, for instance, but the underlying message should be the same regardless.

As we embrace today’s smaller world, it is reassuring that while 2017 is very different from 1993, we are still working with the same fundamental building blocks. The difference lies in the way that story is told and how it reaches the target audience.

Just as Thailand experienced two decades back how successful nation branding campaigns have a transformative power in tourism, direct investment and the overall perception of a country, the same is true today, it’s just that the campaigns look completely different than I ever could have imagined at the start of my career.

Sunita Rajan is SVP of Asia Pacific advertising sales at CNN International Commercial

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