Branding for a Competitive Advantage

Lack of differentiation makes every destination a commodity.

It’s a simple equation. There isn’t a commodity out there that gets to charge a premium–not one red cent more–unless there are no competitors. Commodities are easily substituted. No one cares if you swap out one for another, because they’re all the same. There is little differentiation. A beach here is basically the same as a beach there. A lift and lodging deal here is the same as a deal over there. When all destinations in a category promote the same experience, none can claim an advantage.

In a commodity market, price becomes the driver

Let’s say you’re in a hotel lobby, at a rest stop, or even just surfing the web. You happen upon a brochure (or website) for a ski resort. You flip through it. How much of it was truly unique? How much differentiation was created in your mind as you viewed it? Aside from a few facts about physical attributes, what popped off the page as truly unique?

Let’s use another example. You pick up a travel magazine at your local newsstand, and page through it casually as you wait for a phone call, or sip coffee. It’s an issue about beach getaways. How many different ads will feature a photo of a woman, on a lounge chair, with a palm tree? It might surprise a lot of destination marketers to learn that a common response to ads like these is “Another beach. So what?”


To make matters worse, online travel agencies, aggregators, and directory websites seem to have trained the consuming public to look for low price as the only driver of choice. The websites that people like to go to see how much it would cost to fly to Denver, or Miami aren’t in the business of helping create differentiation, or building a strong brand, or introducing a destination to a new audience. For them, it’s all about transaction volume.

The result? Lots of great deals for the consumer, but travel brands become uninteresting in a hurry if they’re not the cheapest deal.

Features and attributes are not meaningful points of differentiation

For those on the inside of the business, it’s especially important to see things from the consumers’ perspective. Many marketers take stock of the features or attributes they have to sell or promote, and attempt to create a brand position around them. The problem is that many of those attributes (a ski lift, a beach, a restaurant, activities for kids) aren’t all that unique. Lots of places have beaches, don’t they?

This is why creating differentiation within a particular sub-category is so vital to a strong competitive position, and can really drive preference, market share, and bottom line growth.

Consider the position your destination is in

To examine where your brand is now, and where you want to be in the future, ask yourself these twelve questions:

  1. Do we follow what our competitors are doing and saying?
  2. Do we talk with our customers to find out what they think?
  3. Do we talk with non-customers to find out why they aren’t customers?
  4. Does the look, flavor or tone of our marketing campaigns change frequently?
  5. Do we have a “mood board” and brand statement for our company?
  6. Has everyone that comes into contact with our customers seen it?
  7. Do we have a litmus test to determine if each element of our communications program is “on position?”
  8. Do we  have a brand standards or graphics standards manual?
  9. Are they followed religiously?
  10. Do we  have a designated brand steward to pay close attention to creative, and other applications of the brand?
  11. Do we  track ROI for marketing initiatives?
  12. How are our conversion rates?

It’s a crowded world we live in, and despite recessions, layoffs, and tumbling revenue projections, people will still make time for getting away. A strong position will help you create emotional, evocative connections with the consumer. Those connections are built on insights grounded in the truth, and will help you find meaningful differentiation in your category. The process is simple, and can transform your destination from a commodity to a category leader.

NEXT TIME: Defining a Unique Position for Your Destination

Mark Shipley is President and founder of Wanderlust, a travel and destination marketing firm that specializes in communications strategies, Internet marketing, branding and management consulting for the tourism industry.


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