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Branding Asian Tourist Destinations - Trends and Brand Recall

Rod Davies, Orient Pacific Century
February 2003
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Branding Asian Tourist Destinations - A series

This is first in a series on branding Asian tourist destinations, focusing on brand research methodologies and brand strategies in marketing, including some results from previous market research which has now been released for publication.

The methodologies and research strategy outlined here provides a very basic summary of the brand research and strategy data collection and methods carried out by Orient Pacific Century on behalf of our clients over several years. However results, though correct at the time of collection, are now several years old and are provided as examples only of the sort of information that can inform brand and marketing decisions. They should be seen as historical data only.

We are indebted to the Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board for permission to publish this much of this data, carried out as part of a project on branding Malaysian tourism carried out in 1998. Other data provided is sourced from our own self-funded research. We are also grateful to the continued support of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and two other government tourism boards who cannot be named for competitive intelligence reasons at this time. The combined experience and knowledge gained from all of these sources has contributed to this series though obviously current competitive intelligence information cannot be disclosed due to the proprietary nature of this data.

The first article below provides an introduction on basic tourism trends and why professional branding is important to competitive advantage. It also provides data on brand recognition and recall of Asia Pacific destinations amongst travelers from several European, North American and Asian nations from a 1998 study.

Next week's article focuses on identifying motivations for travel amongst different market segments and presents our own model on tourist decision making that can guide research and brand strategies.

The following week's article presents data on the existing brand images of competitive tourist destinations and implications for branding.

A final article goes into more detail on brand research methodologies used in tourism research.

Asian Tourism Trends

Tourism is one of the major industries for many Asian countries, attracting sometimes much-needed foreign exchange, and stimulating economic development in industries from hospitality, construction, property development, transportation, and retail, to a mass of spin-off small business areas such as currency exchange, restaurants and bars, and tour operations. Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand remain the "stars" of the Asian tourism destination brands, but competition is high as country brands such as Malaysia, Indo-China, South Korea, China, Philippines and Indonesia move to increase their brand recognition and brand power.

While in times past, Asian destinations were able to market themselves on attributes of exotic cultures and value for money, the last decade or even last 5 years has seen major competitive threats, both from other Asia Pacific competitive destinations, and with the growing affordability of air travel, from destinations ex-Asia.

At present the industry as a whole is characterised by a varied list of significant trends, suggesting many threats and opportunities.

These include:

  • The increase in perceptions of terrorist threat, embodied most graphically in Bali, but present both before the bombings in Kuta and after in a more escalated form for all countries, especially in South East Asia. Presently however, incoming tourist figures seem to be less affected than even the more optimistic estimates. Bali's tourism industry was of course hit badly immediately following the blast, but even in Bali, recovery has been faster than many predicted. Most significantly, it has been US domestic tourism that has been most affected worldwide, and while US incoming tourism has seen some retraction, inter-Asian tourism has been less affected.
  • China is already the largest out-going tourist market in the region, and the increase in mainland Chinese tourists to international destinations is a trend that will increase in the foreseeable future. Asian countries, especially those with large populations of ethnic Chinese like Singapore and Malaysia, have upped their promotion to the mainland Chinese market.
  • New campaigns from relative market newcomers such as India, South Korea, New Zealand, Egypt, and the Philippines have been launched in the past few years, competing with mainstays Australia, Hawaii, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
  • International trends in eco-tourism, luxury exclusive off the beaten track tourism, and increasing grey tourism from such places as Europe, Japan and South Korea.
  • Thailand, in the wake of it's successful "Amazing Thailand" brand faces a double edged sword, being able to boast some of the highest incoming tourist counts but the lowest expenditure per traveler of any major Asian country destination. Some of this should be expected of course given Thailand's relative low living costs and wage rates, and even more expenditure is hidden with much income disappearing into the cash, black and informal economy.
  • A trend to "sharing" tourism, with countries cooperating in offering packages spanning several countries, increasing value and synergies both to the customer and each economy.
  • With the complexity and complexity of the inbound tourism market increasing annually, positioning and brand image is becoming more and more essential to successful branding of Asian tourist destinations.

The importance of branding to tourism

Every tourist destination in the world has a "brand image". If developed carefully the brand serves to differentiate a destination from competing destinations. However some destinations do not have a brand strategy, and are supported by inconsistent advertising campaigns, creating a confused image to prospective customers. Image must be controlled by a clear projection of brand identity.

When consumers decide on a destination for a holiday or a business conference, several "brands" compete for their attention. A strong brand is differentiated from others, has several strong advantages when compared to others, and has an attractive appeal to consumers. In tourism, while factors such as cost of travel, convenience, and quality of facilities are important, the strongest motivator is "image". Image puts a destination on the consumer's "shopping list" and creates an emotional appeal, which enhances that destination's chances of being chosen over others.

Our work on branding tourist destinations, has enabled us to identify the "brands" of various tourist destinations at various time points. For example, in a survey in 1998 commissioned by the Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board, Singapore was seen, by a broad selection of travelers and tourist agents from the US, Japan, India, Germany, Australia, UK and Sweden as "clean, modern and safe". China's dominant image and attraction was "culture". Malaysia was seen as "multicultural with many beaches". Thailand had a brand image of "exotic, fun, and friendly people"

Formal advertising and promotion of a country as a tourist destination in other nations can also have an effect. If that image is unfocused or not clear, the destination will have difficulty competing with images created by competing countries. Advertising, PR and promotion must complement informal information obtained through word of mouth and personal recommendations, by either building upon the latter or correcting negative perceptions that may be incorrect.

Developing a strong image for any brand requires a carefully planned brand strategy based on:

  1. A well defined and unique brand personality
  2. Selection of the correct positioning strategies
  3. 'Themed' product development
  4. Consistent and appropriate advertising and promotion
  5. Careful brand guardianship

All the above must be built on a thorough understanding of consumer needs. Above all, the success of brand image development will depend on how the perceptions of consumers can be encouraged to believe that one destination is different and better than its competitors. This encourages consumer acquisition and retention, including extending length of stay.

Brand Recognition and Recall

The following graph presents awareness of Asia Pacific travel destinations using unaided recall from a face-to-face personal survey of counter staff employees in 190 travel agent companies in Australia, Japan, US, UK, Germany, Sweden, Singapore, India and Japan specialising in Asian region travel in 1998. Please note the historical nature of the data and the location of respondents. This information should not be generalised to the world as a whole at this time, and is provided for a discussion starter only. You should also be aware that there were large differences according to the country location of each travel agent - information which remains confidential to the client.

Interesting to note is the high top of mind recall for Thailand as the first destination recalled. Over 50% of respondents recalled a Thailand destination first, either as the country itself or one of Bangkok, Phuket or Pattaya, reflecting for strong awareness for Thailand as a destination. Singapore, Hong Kong and Bali were the top 3 destinations in terms of awareness.

Interviewing travel agent counter staff is a cost-effective way of estimating brand awareness for tourist destinations as they are "gatekeepers", and likely to emphasise their own "top of mind" awareness to customers. They are also more able to summarise the perceptions of their customers due to their day to day duties - to a larger extent than supervisors or managers who are more distanced from the end-user. However their perception can also be affected by specific current industry-to-agent promotions and the scope and commercial interests of their employers. When a travel agent respondent mentioned a destination in their own country, that data point was excluded from the analysis for this graph.

There are several other biases in the methodology that must be taken into account in interpretation. Firstly the survey was conducted at the peak of Thailand's "Amazing Thailand" campaign. Secondly, the actual question was "Could you let me know what destination comes to your mind first when I ask you to think of tourist destinations in the Asia-Pacific?", followed by follow up questions to note 2nd and further recalls. The wording of the question would suggest that destinations in Asia, rather than the more vague "Pacific" moniker would come to mind first, so Hawaii, Guam, Australia, New Zealand, and other "non-Asian" destinations may have their "awareness" underestimated.

It is interesting also to compare the responses of travel agent counter staff to a sample of end users from focus groups carried out in the same inbound market countries in the following graph.

In this case, the "top of mind" dominance for Thailand destinations was not as pronounced, though Thailand (as a country destination only) did move up to third place following Singapore and Hong Kong as a member of the dominant group. Also interesting was the stronger brand recall for China compared to travel agents.

Unaided brand recall data, especially when segmented by country of origin, gender, type of contributed (single, family, honeymoon, MICE, gender, and usage categories such as travel expenditure, travel frequency and travel duration) can provide useful basic data for estimating competitive positioning and developing market segmentation strategies.

Next week's article continues the series by identifying motivations for travel amongst different market segments and presents our own model on tourist decision making that can guide research and brand strategies. For email notification of new updates to Asia Market Research, we suggest you sign up to our updates newsletter available from the home page.


Rod Davies is principal of Orient Pacific Century Market Research, which specialises in market research in Asian markets.

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