How To Brand Your Region For Tourism

Temptation Boca GrandeHint: It’s about finding the cool stuff, and making cult favorites out of the mundane

Everyone has to brand these days. It started with product brands, then service brands. Now we all have to have a personal brand. And cities now talk about “branding” themselves. Good earth. Can’t we just go to work?

In the old days, it was enough that the Chamber of Commerce came up with slogan, but now even cities have to have a brand “personality” that will “resonate” with “key audience.” And not just one brand; because of competing turfs, a city (and region) might have a tourism brand AND an industrial development brand, both in conflict. It’s all gone a bit too far.

That is not to say you don’t want to think of branding when you promote your city to visitors. But the goal of a local brand is not an end in itself. Instead, the goal is attracting visitors AND encouraging trade and development. Branding is but a small tool, it is the last step in the process, not the first. The real work in attracting visitors is in coming up with product, so that you have something to sell to visitors. Melanie Bartek, my old manager at Brooks Brothers, used to have an expression: “Sell what’s on the shelf.”

In big cities and in tourist destinations, this is easy; much of the work has been done. There is lots to sell. But as smaller communities get into the tourism game, they don’t think they have the assets. And so they struggle. They don’t need to. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Preserve your history. While the local history museum might not be a giant draw (and might be only open two days a week), it is important for a larger reason; your history, layered over decades, is what makes your town unique. It is that collective memory that reaches outside your local area, and brings people in. You need historic buildings to make the city look and feel interesting. Save them. You would be surprised what people are interested in seeing. Even if you have a dying mall, it might be interesting to folks like Peter Blackbird and Roger Florence’s, who have the excellent website Above, a photo of the Temptation Restaurant in Boca Grande, Florida. It’s a terribly normal looking building, but it’s old. The food is a tradition and the building (and sign) is now an icon.
  2. Get good photography. Distribute high-quality, rights-cleared photos of your destination for free. You need a number of types of images, and they should be downloadable, without rights management, as 300 DPI tiffs on your website. First, you need shots of the main streets and landmarks, and top activities. After you have these, and only then, do you spend for models and fancy images. Make sure you get the photographer to sign away all rights to the photos as a “work for hire.” Ditto with any models or people in the photos. If these photogs give you guff, go immediately to another photographer who can do this. If you can’t afford it, take hundreds of digital pictures yourself, and post them online. To see how it is done, check out Carnival Cruise Lines, and the way they use everyday websites to promote their brand.
  3. Create lists. Make voluminous lists of parks, restaurants and attractions, and make sure it is on the Internet, and syndicated with an RSS feed. This seems obvious, but it is not. Many places rely on city parks bureaus to list parks online, but very often parks are run by local, state and federal agencies, and so the information is dispersed. Most visitor bureaus just make lists of art galleries and such, but you will want to create lists of breakfast joints, coffee shops, barber shops, boutiques, even service stations and car repair shops.
  4. Find offbeat chain stores. Many cities do not have that many independent stores. So are there chain stores that are interesting? In Lancaster County, Virginia a Little Sue convenience store was loved for its fried chicken. Does your McDonald’s do more volume than any other location in the state? Whatever is unique, promote it. If Sam’s Exxon has the “coldest Budweiser anywhere” you should get them to make a T-shirt to sell to college kids.
  5. Create icons. The old proverb “remove not the ancient landmark your father has set” is your new motto. You need to be an advocate for public art. If all your town has in the way of public art is a muffler man, a giant chair, or a cool hamburger joint sign, promote it! I think about Gloucester County, Virginia. A small African-American roadhouse restaurant, W.J. Stokes, had a soft drink sign that said “Don’t Hate, Communicate.” It was a local landmark; installation art, really. While the building was modest, everyone knew the sign, and would repeat it as they drove by. It gained further attention as it was featured in a Peace Frogs T-shirt. The fashion brand and retailer Peace Frogs is headquartered in Gloucester. (Note to Gloucester County Economic Development. FIX THAT SIGN AS THE LETTERING IS WORN OFF.)
  6. Sell your people. I learned this from one of my former co-workers, Juliette Reynolds, at the tourism publishing company Miles Media. The idea is that if you don’t have any tourism product, you need to sell your people. That means restaurant cashiers, shoe repair folks, convenience store clerks and fishing boat captains. Think Floyd the Barber; find unique folks who give your community identity. Promote them. Make them local celebrities in your photos (see #2). Many times, local officials take these folks for granted, and forget that they might have appeal far beyond their immediate circles. When people travel, they remember who they see. Read the BrandlandUSA post 14 Ways to Save Your Casual Service Restaurant.
  7. Think of alternative attractions. Does your small county seat have a weekly court day where small claims are adjudicated? Promote it. Do churches (see next item) have Saturday bazaars and pancake breakfasts and fish dinners? Promote it. Ask local high school and college students what they think is funky or fun to do in your destination. They can help you spot cult favorites and inside jokes.
  8. Churches draw out of town visitors. Europeans, in particular, are fascinated by American religious music, particularly gospel. I learned this two decades ago when British friends came to Virginia and said that they had to visit a black, Southern church. In the black community, congregations travel for revival week, gospel sings and other activities. Go one step further than compiling a list of local churches for the front desk at the Hampton Inn. Instead, meet with local ministers and ask them what sort of special programs (choir, healing) there are that might be interesting to a visitor. Promote your attractions to groups coming to town to do mission work. And don’t forget to give out your tourism information to mothers-of-the-bride. Typically, a big wedding can attract over 100 visitors to a small town. These guests will go out drinking after the rehearsal dinner, play golf on Saturday and might even have a last minute gift purchase.
  9. A slogan is not a brand. Call your destination by its legal name. Can we please get away from all of these attempts to rename places by slogan? For instance, Florida’s Gulf Islands is the name for the Bradenton and Longboat Key area. But they don’t want to push the name Bradenton, so they call it Florida’s Gulf Islands. Florida’s Gulf Islands is a great slogan, but it should be secondary to the place name, Bradenton. Bradenton is beloved and famous because of Tropicana.
  10. Be an advocate for local issues. Ensure public access to waterways. Speak up in favor of park improvement projects. Serve on landscaping and civic improvement committees. Help with the farmer’s market. Work with your local health inspectors on improvements to hotels. While you should never appear political, people do expect that people who work in the tourism industry have opinions.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.

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  1. Great points Tyler, and your suggestion about how to talk about mutually beneficial ideas with the photog before embarking on photography campaign is great. I remember you said one time that good photography is one of the first, and best, investments a visitor bureau can make in redefining the image of the town. They will get lots of free press out of good images, but if they want really good stuff and want rights for some time, they need to be prepared to pay for it. But it is a great investment.

  2. Nice site. Hope you are doing well.

    I wanted to offer some advice on on of your recent blogs regarding photography.

    “Make sure you get the photographer to sign away all rights to the photos as a “work for hire.” Ditto with any models or people in the photos. If these photogs give you guff, go immediately to another photographer who can do this.”

    Most photographers worth hiring will shy away from “work for hire” terminology. Instead, use terms like “exclusive” or “unlimited” or “defined limitations” (no use on products or for resale) rights for a defined period of time. Almost every town will only need images for ten years before they are in need of updating. If you want to resell images in calendars, mugs, t-shirts, go to the photographer or artist and offer a percentage of sales. You may pay a little more for unlimited rights, but it gives the photographer a chance to make money from them also. After the ten years you can negotiate to use the images on for editorial and historical use. It is better to think of this as a relationship and not buying a product from the artist. Most artists will be very friendly on these terms as soon as they realize you aren’t trying to take them to the cleaners.

    A good photographer can make the difference in the perception of the town. That’s the value there. It’s not just the town itself. Negotiating for rights or asking the photographer how you can collaborate to get the usage you want often creates ownership on both sides and facilitates a better outcome. Every photographer that I have known that will work for hire isn’t worth it, little talent, equipment not up to par, not serious about the craft. There is a reason they are willing to give up all rights, because the work isn’t worth keeping the rights.

    Carnival Cruise lines pays for complete buyouts of rights and they pay handsomely for it, hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. They know the value of great imagery. We have all been on a cruise before and it obvious that the PR images are much better than the real thing.

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