Monday, September 27, 2010

Is Queensland’s tourism brand banal?

Queensland tourism has a ‘new branding strategy’. But is there anything ‘new’ about it? Or is it a collection of the same banal clichés which we’ve been serving up for decades?

This week, the Premier released what was billed as ‘a new branding strategy’ for tourism in Queensland. You can find one report here, and the Youtube video of the latest tourism TV ad for the state is here.

According to the Premier, the new strategy has been worked on for a year by the brains trust of Tourism Queensland. It will be backed by an initial $4million social media campaign. Gone is the ‘Where Else But Queensland’ campaign line, to be replaced by ‘Queensland, Where Australia Shines.’

Hmmm. At a time when tourism operators and destinations are reporting diminished interest from domestic travelers (many lured overseas by the strong dollar, or simply looking for different experiences to the same old same old) and international tourist arrivals have slowed, you might have thought a ‘new brand strategy’ would be something quite different. But this isn’t.

Have a close look at the launch TVC commercial mentioned above. It’s a cascading series of beautiful images but they’re typically all featuring the same thing: beaches, ocean, water and sunshine. Have a close look. There’s a rainforest scene, and Brisbane gets a look in with a scene of people paddling up the Brisbane river in kayaks (as they do, all day. In fact, so popular is this pastime that it’s becoming a menace to navigation. Not!).

So what’s wrong with this? Tourism’s all about buckets and spades, isn’t it? The truth can be something different. Here’s a few things to mull over.

Shopping and dining, along with cultural experiences, usually rate very highly on the recreational travelers list of ‘must dos.’ They also account for much of the actual expenditure by tourists visiting a region for leisure or business (the whole point of calling it an industry, after all. Playing on the beach is free). Shopping, dining or cultural experience don’t feature in the initial ‘Queensland, Where Australia Shines’ campaign, though they may come later. You would hope so, or it could make the mistake that allegedly happened with the famous ‘You’ll Never Never Know’ campaign for the Northern Territory. Evidently, while the ad was very appealing, the fact that the campaign almost exclusively featured remote outback locations turned off a number of potential travelers, because they thought the NT was devoid of decent hotels, shops, or restaurants. So that audience never never knew because they never never went.

The other weakness of this obsession with white sandy beaches and blue waters, tropical skies and bright young things frolicking in the water, is that you can find the same experiences all over the world. For the same money, would you have a family holiday in Fiji, or the Whitsundays? Many domestic tourists have already worked that equation out for themselves. Plus, the new Queensland campaign seems preoccupied with youth. Maybe not a bad thing, but higher end mature or family travelers with solid holiday budgets to spend probably don’t plan on the sorts of ‘young, active and single’ activities profiled in the campaign.

In fact, it doesn’t look like there’s a single person in the campaign that’s aged over 30, which makes it look like an effort to turn the entire State of Queensland into a giant Club Meb or Contiki Tour destination.

While I’m on a roll, I just don’t understand why tourism promoters in Queensland insist on reinforcing rusted on images of the state. Since the 1960s, the state has been synonymous with sunshine and beach holidays. Ask anyone elsewhere in Australia the first place that comes to mind when you mention ‘Queensland’ and the answer will be ‘Gold Coast.’ I think they’ve got the message. It’s warmer, there are lots of beaches, palm trees, rainforest and reef. Because these are so synomous with Queensland, surely you don’t even need to advertise them? Mainstream media and culture does that for us - they’ve become a cultural fixation. Talk about stating the bleeding obvious.

The shame here is that the broader recreational offer of Queensland always struggles for a look in. It’s taken some time, but Queensland’s restaurants are now among the best in the country. Our fresh produce is hard to beat, offering regional delicacies which could lure high spending foodies, if only they knew there was more to the place than cold prawns in the hot sun, by the beach. Cultural and non-beach recreational experiences are improving all the time. Think about it this way – plenty of Australians holiday in Victoria. They’re not going there for the weather. But in Queensland, our tourism promoters continue to project a strong statement that Queensland is all about the weather, beaches and little else.

It might surprise many that, last time I checked at least, Brisbane has more visitors and more visitor nights than even the Gold Coast. The capital city is the biggest tourism market in the state, bar none. The reasons are common sense enough – people visiting their friends and relatives, and a very high number of business and convention travelers, along with people who actually want to experience an urban environment. The tragedy for markets like Brisbane is that, when they do feature in promotions of Queensland, they tend to mimic the beach experience, with visions of people frolicking in the artificial lagoon of South Bank, or (as they do in this case) paddling kayaks up the river.

Is this distorted image of Queensland doing harm to the potential of tourism markets which don’t fit the clichéd image of sun, surf and sand? And what about the State’s business reputation – is a one dimensional tourism message about sun surf and sand so powerful and overwhelming that being taken seriously as a place for suits to make money is a battle to overcome prejudices? Instead of swimming with a tide of opportunity, does the tropical image mean that anything not associated with those clichés means swimming against a tide?

Apparently the latest campaign is the result of a great deal of research. But looking at the first campaign offering, all the research may have asked is in essence “what do you think of when we say ‘Queensland’” and responded by feeding existing perceptions. Is there anything so wrong with telling people something they don’t know about Queensland?