By now it is no secret that the reality of Britain’s exit from the European Union poses both political and economic uncertainties. Amid the ambiguity, the notion of ‘making a success of Brexit’ is a crucial one for business, perhaps none more so than for the travel and tourism industry.
On a perceptual level, the question around how Brexit will impact ‘brand Britain’ is complex. Concerns around how the country – and its people – are perceived by the rest of the world will have no doubt raised huge questions for those tasked with maintaining the destination’s appeal in the wake of the referendum result in 2016.
Research from VisitBritain’s 2018 inbound tourism forecast shows that “for most potential European visitors, Brexit does not affect their decision to travel to Britain for leisure”. Additionally, the findings suggest that “most Europeans still see Britain as a welcoming destination”. Our political choices, it would seem, have not impacted the decision-making process of tourists in a way that industry may have initially feared.
If political sentiment isn’t a barrier for the everyday inbound traveller to the UK, then tourism has a clear role to play in helping to shape how people around the world view us, independent of politics.
While perception of Britain abroad may not have impacted the inclination of tourists to visit, at home the question still remains over the very nature of the British we wish to outwardly promote on a global stage. At this cultural juncture, Britain is uniquely positioned to re-engage itself in a fresh exercise of nation branding. By fundamentally rethinking, reimagining and redefining what ‘brand Britain’ actually means, we can begin to think of longer-term strategies around what more the country has to offer beyond the given, the understood and the expected.
The fundamentals of branding the nation state starts with knowing who a nation is and where it positions itself today. The reconciliation of these two questions into a cohesive and singular narrative is crucial, but at a time when fundamental questions around British cultural identity are being fiercely debated at home, what strategies can the industry employ to ensure it finds an inspiring strategic direction to forge success in the years to come?
It is one thing to reach a domestic understanding and/or viewpoint, another to translate this identity and broadcast it to the rest of the world.
The trap for any brand to fall into would be to idly fall back on nostalgic and archaic notions of what ‘brand Britain’ is and stands for, to play on the same age-old tropes of ‘Britishness’ that have long been upheld. While proximity to and experiences of the Queen, Big Ben and afternoon tea may still undeniably prove massive levers for holiday makers visiting the UK, Brexit also presents an opportunity for tourism to innovate around inbound travel marketing and communications.
Familiar and recognisable cultural tokens may prove an effective hook, but brands should remain mindful over the limits to which these truly opens up for marked innovation – particularly as the broader travel industry seeks to recalibrate itself in line with the shifts in attitudes and expectations of holiday makers, namely the more experience-seeking millennial generation.
The notable changes in destination marketing strategies have shifted the focus away from a country’s well-trodden sites and towards a more people and experience-centric approach. A focus on the unique, genuine and unexpected experiences that visitors can expect from their visit provides deeper emotional resonance.
Airbnb’s experience hosts is perhaps the best example of how the nation’s people themselves become the enablers of personalised, authentic experiences rooted in passion.
Building on this, a more concentrated focus on ‘localhood’ is emerging. While the idea may speak to isolationism in political terms, the opposite is found in Copenhagen’s tourism strategy that boldly declares “the end of tourism as we know it”.
Recognising that tourism is entering into a new era, its strategy invites its visitors to play a role in co-creating its future alongside residents, putting human interaction at the heart of visitor experience. Rethinking the role of the tourist here as a temporary resident, an active participant in culture here is key. Effective destination marketing requires a nation’s identity to draw in the rest of the world, rather than seek to bind the nation against it.
Elsewhere, travel apps such as Detour provide visitors with unique and off the beat audio tours of global cities, delivered by locals who they have the chance to meet in real life along the way. Again, enabling interpersonal connection between tourist and local.
Understanding the core values of a nation’s citizens is crucial in unearthing its brand identity – brands should invest in research to truly understand the nature of these shifts with the British people. Giving expression to this insight in a unique, effective way will be crucial if British tourism is to follow the trend in taking a more people-centred approach to its destination marketing.
Brands will only capitalise on this successfully – as a creative and, in turn, cultural opportunity – if they meaningfully dive into an exploration of Britain’s identity and the composite ‘face’ it wishes to present on a global stage.
Will de Groot, cultural strategist, The Elephant Room
This article originally appeared in The Drum Network Travel Special. For more information on how to get involved, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org