According to newest ranking of world’s natural wonders (New7wonder, 2008) most favourite names of landscapes among the first twenty rankings are located in developing countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam or Philippine.
Despite being famous for naturally attractive destinations, these countries are not named among the most visited destinations (World Tourism Organization, 2008). It can be argued that there are a number of factors other than natural beauty that can make a tourist spot desirable to visitors – political stability, cultural diversity, economic development. It is usual that international visitors feel comfortable during their holidays in Australia, France or the United State of Americans. There is no doubt that these developed countries are financially superiors to promote their treasures like Opera House, Affel Tower or Liberty Statue.
However, it is unusual that there is very low brand awareness among tourist agent counter staff worldwide about above high-ranking beautiful wonders (Rod, 2003). It is a paradox that these naturally fascinating spots are not even named in these tourism “gatekeepers” as their top-of-mind tourism destinations. In contrast, other tourist spots in developing countries like Bali (Indonesia), or Bangkok, Phuket beach (Thailand) joint very high degree of brand awareness.
This reality raises the question of building brand awareness as well as brand image for tourist destination under nearly similar condition. This paper, therefore, is aimed to find out why and how a tourist spot is more attractive and more frequently visited than other. More importantly, how good brand equity can make difference to a tourist destination.
There are a number of developing countries that are famous for exotic and beautiful landscapes. However, although natural beauty is ranked as the first factor influencing travel decision, there are a lot of others determining the attractiveness of a tourism destination including infrastructure, shopping facilities, historical prominence, attitudes of local residents as well as local authorities towards tourists and so forth (Gearing et al., 1973). Moreover, even two countries with similarities in some or many of these factors may have different degree of attractiveness depending on how image of each country is perceived by tourists. Therefore, as “branding has to do with the way customers perceived and buy thing” (Vincente, 2004), this paper argues that the success of the destination marketing activities in developing countries is primarily determined by (i) the awareness and attitudes of local authorities and people towards their country identity; (ii) their ability to accentuate the positive country image as well as to address the negative image and (iii) the congruence of actual image, projected image (by the country authority) and perceived image (by customers).
These three main determinants of marketing destination are taken into consideration in an attempt to illuminate the fact that a developing country can be an attractive tourism destination under condition of being less advantageous than other developed countries in terms of economic development, infrastructure, finance capacity supporting tourism promotion campaigns and so forth. A number of samples of two developing countries – Thailand and Vietnam are used to illustrate this paper’s points of argument. These two countries are chosen because they are nearly similar in geography, population, culture, infrastructure and the level of economic development. Besides, some samples of other countries are also employed in the purpose of comparison with these two countries.
Issue 1: Understanding yourselves
According to (Han, 2005), factors influencing travel decisions involve push and pull effects. Accordingly, push factors are associated with the needs and wants of the visitors (e.g. motivation for discovery, demand for rest or relaxation and so on); and pull factors refer to the attributes and features of the destination itself. Taci & Kozak (2006) also suggests that the success of the destination marketing activities is determined by the extent of congruence between authorities’ projected image and customers’ perceived image. With respect to branding destination, this paper argues that brand identity that is defined as how a country see itself (Vincente, 2004) is primarily taken into consideration prior to brand images (i.e. how travellers see a country).
While nation branding is aimed to help the nation to “sell” its products and places (Fan, 2006), the crucial issues for nations is not just what natural beauty they have but what attitudes people in each country have towards their country’s natural treasures in terms of exploration as well preservation. Vietnamese people are proud of their landscape Ha long Bay that is ranked first among recent ranking of new world wonders (New7wonder, 2008). However, The Vietnamese authority and local residents do not pay enough attention to preserve this spectacular landmark leaving it increasingly polluted and excessively exploited (Vietnamnet, 2007). By contrast, the Tourism Authority of Thailand very value quality tourism that concentrates on education and the responsible utilization of natural resources instead of merely prioritizing high tourist number (Kittikanya, 2006). If nation branding helps a nation to improve its image of nation brand (Fan, 2006), these contrasting points of view towards tourism business may be used to illuminate the high gap in attractiveness of the two countries.
Another aspect of brand identity in brand destination is the role of people involved in the process of introducing and delivering tourism products to visitors as consumers tend to perceive the place image via characteristics of not only the place but also of people who live there (Nuttavuthisit, 2006). In this regards, the behaviour and professionalism of authority, tourist agents, tour-guides as well as local residents in some developing countries seem to be a big issue. For example, the first ambassadors of country to international tourists are immigration officers at airports and their behaviour may create bad or good impressions of the whole nation. Whereas the immigration officers in China, Singapore or Thailand airports always smile at visitors, their counterparts in Ho Chi Minh City’s airport in Vietnam do not do so at all. Professor John Quelch – Associate Dean of the Harvard Business School, is very impressive with the hospitality of the Thai land people and in a interview organized by a Vietnamese electronic newspaper, he said that Vietnam is also a very hospitable country (Quelch, 2005). Vietnamese people are supposed to thank him for his good comment but this country seems to be far from this generous compliment. Instead of being illusive of diplomatic comments of big figures, Vietnamese people desperately need to think about themselves more seriously and more critically. It would be better if complains of ordinary international visitors about quality of Vietnamese tourism service are seriously taken into consideration. The following comment of an American tourist is an example. He said “Your tourism is not as professional as that of Thai land. They also bring visitors to shops but tourists do not complain. In Vietnam, for example, in Hoi an, visitors are not pleased where the prices for souvenirs are so different, some times 3-4 times. We consider that cheating and do not care, but we will not return again” (Vietnamnet, 2007). Apparently, this actual sample (among hundreds of similar ones) are very worth for people in charge of tourism industry as well as ordinary residents in Vietnam contemplating about who they are and subsequently what to do to improve the situation.
In terms of brand positioning, Kevin et al. (2002) states that points of difference alone are not enough to create a distinctive brand against competitors and it is a conventional misconception that building a brand is about starting with salient features. As every international tourist going to a new country on their holiday has different motivation: adventure, relaxation, exploration or social interaction. Undoubtedly, no matter what purpose of journey they have, they definitely do not pay a sum of money in exchange for annoyance or anger. Therefore, before finding ways to impress visitors, the tourist sector in developing countries essentially avoid frustrating or even outraging them with failure in fundamental and basic services.
Issue 2: Building the positive and wisely address the negative images
According to Vincente (2004), the image of a less unknown country is shaped by the country category in which it is classified. And as a country image is the sum of believes and impression people hold about places, it is crucial for a developing country to take advantages of its positive nation brand and to diminish or correct its negative country image assuming that each country has a “biased” image to its international tourists, be it is strong or weak, clear or vague. Indeed, this tricky and challenging task involves building a strong country slogan, correcting negative country image and being consistent in conducting the integrated marketing communication.
A nation brand may represent variety of factors and associations including culture, history, people and tourist attractions (Fan, 2006). In terms of building an impressive slogan that can be effectively served as a necessary public articulation of a destination brand positioning strategy, the most challenge for a slogan or tagline is to make a country image stand out from other with its differentiating values and identities. In this regards, there are some successful slogans such as “Amazing Thai land”, “Uniquely Singapore”, Incredible India”, or “Malaysia Truly Asia” (Nuttavuthisit, 2006) and there is a criticism over the slogan of Vietnamese tourism “Vietnam -The Hidden Charm” (Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, 2006). Accordingly, it is believed that Thai Land tourism campaign with slogan “Amazing Thai land” fits with the reality that many tourists enjoy the idea of experimenting with something new, exotic and diverse from their home lifestyle. By contrast, “Vietnam – the Hidden Charm” is criticized as a confusing message in this country’s destination branding campaign. In fact, these comments are right but insufficient and they are likely to be under biases against these two countries’ images that may affect the diffusion and understanding of slogans. There is no doubt that Mr. Hermawan Kartaya – The Asia’s leading marketing strategist is also right with his comment that the Vietnamese immigration officers in Ho Chi Minh city airport need to show more charm at immigration counters with their smiles as their counterparts always do in Bangkok airport (Kartajaya, 2007). Keeping distance away from unpleasant behaviour of tourism-related people, slogan “the Hidden charm” virtually highlights the unexplored potentials of Vietnam’s culture, nature and people as this country is known for natural and beautiful attractions, diversity in cultures (The Vietnam Tourism Organization, 2005). Critically thinking, this is not a bad idea that fits with the Vietnam’s tourism potentials. However, the slogan of Vietnamese tourism campaign was supposed to come up with currently imperative issue of this country’s destination branding – improve the negative image of low level of professionalism as well as hospitality of tourism-related people. In other worlds, “The Hidden Charm” is not a wrong message but has been launched at a unsuitable time and has not kept up with the expectation of international tourists towards this country image.
Hence, another determinant reinforcing the country positive image is how the negative image is addressed.
As discussed above, every country has both positive and negative images in the perception of the international tourists. For example, while Thailand is famous for Thai people’s magnificent hospitality or for the attractive image of the best place to ship, this country is also notorious for taking advantage of sex tourism as an attraction to draw international visitors (Nuttavuthisit, 2006). Likewise, whereas Vietnam is well-known for its spectacular natural beauty with a number of magnificent tourism attractions like Ha long bay or beaches, low level of professionalism of tourism-related people actually may dishearten the tourists to come back. Nuttavuthisit (2006) suggests that the positive perception of a country can be reinforced by deflecting attention away from the negative aspects. Similarly, Kotler (2002) also proposed that negative images of a place may be tarnished by overwhelming the target consumers with positive images. In terms of psychological perception, they are very true with their comments as it may be easier to accentuate positive associations than attempt to refute negative ones. However, this paper suggests that the positive associations sometimes are incapable to compensate the bad impact derived from negative images. There is no doubt that the international tourists may be obsessed by the graphic images of child sex abuse in Bangkok this obsession may leave them less well-disposed towards Thai people hospitality. Likewise, the unique beauty of Ha long bay will be overshadowed by the cool faces of immigration officers or mindfulness tourist operators in Vietnam. Therefore, the negative image is necessary to be addressed straightaway and determinedly along with the leverage of the positive image. Further, in some countries like Vietnam, the correction of negative image should be placed in priority and supposedly affects the success of publicizing the positive image.
With respect to in marketing communication in the tourism industry, developing countries are apparently less financially capable in comparison with developed countries. However, the huge money for advertising is not always necessarily correlated with the success of a country brand image. And even at the same level of development, one country is able to build a distinctive and differentiating brand image, another does not. According to Table of Comparison for Asian countries in terms of potentials in travel and tourism, infrastructure and Global Competitiveness Index Rankings (Appendix 1 ), organized by Business-In-Asia website in 2007, there is not very big gap differences between Thailand and Vietnam. However, while Thailand (along with its destinations like Bangkok and Phuket beach) has a very strong brand image of ‘exotic, fun, and friendly people” and this country has achieved higher level of brand awareness among counter staff employees in 190 travel agent worldwide than a number of other famous tourism destinations like Australia, Hawaii, Tokyo or the U.S and Vietnam is ranked on the bottom of this table (Rod, 2002). Additionally, according to a global study by FutureBrand, a leading Global brand consultancy, Thailand was also named as the “Best country Brand” in terms of value for money in the Country Brand Index (Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, 2006). Undoubtedly, this reality indicates that the success in destination branding does not simply come from finance superiority intended for costly advertising and promotion campaigns. Instead, as Rod (2002) claims, strongest motivator in tourism is to identify and most unique image that can create an emotional appeal and help an destination being chosen over others. In this regards, the country with promising tourism potentials like Vietnam is likely to face the problem of spotting the right image to promote to the outside world. While Malaysia is known for “multicultural with many beaches’; Thailand has the image of “hospitable people”; Vietnam has a very confusing or even very misleading image in the perception of outside world. Ridiculously, despite the fact that the war in Vietnam has passed for nearly 30 years but this country has still perceived as a country of ongoing war (Vietnamnet, 2007). The poor performance of marketing communication in branding destination is fully illustrated by the comment of Phillip Kotler, the father of modern marketing during his visit to Vietnam; “How many people in the world know that Intel and Canon decided to choose Vietnam as the site of big plants instead of China” (Vietnamnet, 2007).
Issue 3: The congruence of Actual image, Projected image and Perceived image.
Thus, we have discussed about how the destination marketing activities is influenced by the awareness and attitudes of the local authorities and other tourism-related people towards their country identity; and by their ability to accentuate the country positive image as well as to diminish the negative image. In addition to these factors, the congruence of actual image, projected image (by the country authority) and perceived image (by customers) primarily contribute to the strong brand equity of a country.
Indeed, Tasci & Kozak (2006) have mentioned only two different factors involved in destination branding: projected and received images (Appendix 6). However, the actual image as the third factor has been added by this paper (Appendix 7) with the argument that the projected image is subjectively created by the tourist authority in an attempt to promote the positive image of a country as an appealing destination for international tourists. In fact, these commercialized images may or may not be compatible with the actual image depending on either how the tourism-related people understand their country identity (i.e. do they understand themselves?) or their ability to convey the actual image into the tourism campaign to make their country attractive and top-of-mind choice in the perception of consumers (i.e. do outside people positively perceive their country image?). As can be seen in this paper’s suggested diagram (Appendix 7), the success in destination branding is primarily determined by the good match of actual, projected and perceived images. In fact, this challenging and tricky task necessitates very high degree of consistency of the integrated marketing strategy, especially the involvement of people as the most important factor in tourism service.
As discussed above, among developing countries, some countries are very successful in positioning their countries’ distinctive images and wisely promote them to international tourists but some others are still incapable to do so. One of the main reasons comes from inconsistency in conducting the whole marketing campaign. For example, in an effort to promote its country image, Vietnam has launch an advertising program on CNN for consecutive 13 weeks (Vietnamnet, 2007) and Vietnam government has embarked on a massive propaganda to encourage Vietnamese people all over the world to vote for Ha long Bay as one of the new world wonders (Appendix in the form of Brochure). In fact, these activities are the indicative of big effort of a poor country like Vietnam to carry out money-intensive campaigns to correct Vietnam’s negative and misleading image of a country of war. However, money and time on these promotional campaigns will not work unless they are necessarily implemented in tandem with other factors of the marketing mix campaigns. There are a lots of annoying practices to international tourists in this country: immigration officers are in cold faces, tourist operators are unprofessional and unreliable (i.e. people factor); hygiene standard is awful and infrastructure is very poor (i.e. poor physical evidence); and natural landscapes are polluted and excessively exploited (i.e. quality of products is degraded). Above all, this paper considers that the success of any tourism promotion campaigns is closely associated with the behaviour of people involved. There was a shameful samples of Vietnamese people that can undermines and neutralize any effort of any expensive promotional campaign. In May of 2008, Japanese Embassy in Vietnam organized the cherry blossom exhibition in Hanoi (Appendix 4). Unexpectedly, unlike the similar events in other countries where most visitors usually show good behaviour and in contemplating Japanese magnificent cherry blossoms, on the opening day hundreds of visitors in Hanoi have scrambled to grab flowers with the helpless of security people. This spontaneous “robbery” happened in front of foreign visitors including Japanese organizers who were actually shocked to this unprecedented incident. Undoubtedly, this incident definitely alarms the decline in consciousness of a part of Vietnamese people. Therefore, it is imperative for Vietnam to pay more attention to education to improve people’s awareness of proper behaviour along with any promotion programs. Unless this critical task is successfully materialized (i.e. change offensive actual images), any attempt of the authority to creating an positive country image (i.e. the projected image) will never match expectation of visitors (i.e. perceived images). In other words, the actual image precedes and guides the projected image and, subsequently, the authority is supposed to understand the former fist before thinking about the latter as today sophisticated international tourists are increasingly critical of any mismatch between an image intentionally projected in promotion ads and reality they genuinely experience (Nuttavuthisit 2006).
In contrast to Vietnam, Thailand, another developing country with a number of similarities, is a successful sample of good match above-mentioned images. Obviously, the attractiveness of slogan “Amazing Thailand” is not achieved in isolation from other factors of integrated marketing communication. This slogan as well as the newest campaign namely the “Seven Amazing Wonders” (Kittikanya, 2006) including Thainess, Treasure products, Beaches, Nature, Health and wellness, Trendy and Festivities truly represent what this country genuinely have and show to international visitors. These campaigns are not merely about the spectacular images on advertisements messages but what outside world hears is as truly as what visitors witness and experience. Further, Thailand ( and other Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore) is able to nourish its nation brand through consistently themed, long-term and timely destination promotion campaigns that keep balance of key elements of tourism marketing and promotion (Nuttavuthisit, 2006). It is believed that the current Vietnam’s slogan “the Hidden Charm” seems to be less emotionally attractive than its previous one (Appendix 3) with the picture of a smiling girl that represents the message of smiling country to international visitors. Actually, smile and hospitality are what Vietnam desperately needs to have to start with its long-term tourism promotion campaign to the world.
The three-image diagram (Appendix 6 ) indicates that the size of these factors’ fit reveal the success of the branding destination resulting to the number of first as well as repeats visits. Additionally, the number of repeat visits to a country is primarily attributed to not only the perceived good match of images but also to the awareness and attitude of tourism-related authority addressing the issue of this issue. It is believed that retaining current consumers is much cheaper than finding new ones (Kotler et al. 2007). With respect to tourism industry, Rittichainuwat (2007) claims that past travel experience to a particular place will prompt the idea of travelling there again and importantly, personal experience is said to exert more impact on next travel decisions than the intrusive information comes from commercials. Under the condition of limited finance capacity, this indicator is worth taking into account for developing countries attempting to encourage repeat visits. For example, in 2008’s tourism promotion plans, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has clearly specified marketing mechanics that were tailored to customer base of visitors who have previously travelled to Thailand (TAT, 2008). This program includes building a network of supporters of Thailand and implementing word-of-mouth marketing, relationship marketing, loyalty and reward programs to encourage referrals by repeat visitors. Being aware of the importance of repeat visits, but the Vietnam Organization of Tourism fails to build up a particular program to realize this target. When addressed the issue of repeat visitors, a person in charge of the tourism sector just has a general comment that they need to meet visitors’ demand for services, to have better tour guides. Two countries with two different approaches and not surprisingly, more than 70 per cent of international visitors plan to return to Thailand (TAT, 2008), while this figure to Vietnam is just 30 per cent (Vietnamnet, 2007). Actually, the brand image of Vietnam’s tourist industry is far from catching up with its Asian neighbouring countries like China or Thai land if detailed acting plans have not been sufficiently addressed.
In short, the success of destination branding, especially for developing countries, is primarily determined by the awareness of their country’s identity; their ability to accentuate the positive as well as to address the negative images; and the congruence of the projected, actual and perceived images. Indeed, a strong country brand image is not always correlated with superiority in finance although finance capability, advanced infrastructure and availability of natural beauty are significantly influential in building a strong brand. In fact, a developing country can basically outperform another developed country in marketing destination activities in inferiority over these factors provided that it can capitalize on the country advantages to create a distinctive image in perception of international tourists. Besides, the reality of destination branding in developing countries also reveals that under the relatively the same conditions of geography, demography or level of economic development, a nation is able to successfully leverage its brand image but another is not. Above all, if destination branding is said to substantially make a difference to a country brand, the role of people involved in this process is supposedly the most vital to create Unique Selling Proposition in tourist sector.
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