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Food sells a brand, some tasty lessons...

I recently gave a talk on branding and tourism. I offered the group examples of great tourism brands, places like Hawaii, California, New York, Maine – and of course Italy, France and Spain. My point was simple – if you could add the word “Hawaii” to a product – not only will it sell for more; it will evoke the power of the brand. Think Italian shoes, French wine, Spanish almonds, and even Hawaiian-style shampoo.

But making that jump from destination to brand is tricky. It means you have to have a set of values. So, to show the hard road of transforming a destination into a brand, I compared Facebook posts for a month between Visit Maine and Visit NH – to see the difference in destination versus brand. First a note on brand: Maine has a brand – it evokes lobsters, Steven King, blueberries, Acadia, Camden, Moxie… and it draws travelers from around the world. New Hampshire is a destination; known for its lakes, mountains, seacoast and small towns. But awareness fades as you leave the New England region, and its strongest icon, the Old Man of the Mountain no longer exists.

But on Facebook, NH has twice the likes of Maine – and the post variances are fascinating– these are my takeaways:

Brands are built on food. Sounds simple, but people love food, and food is big part of travel. Think about it, people travel and talk about food. You see lines for lobster rolls in Maine, or clam chowder in Boston, or a cheese steak in Philly. Trying the local specialty is part of the travel experience. The café that commercialized the nata in Lisbon has expanded and now hosts thousands each day hoping to try the famous custard tarts. Yet, food is not a strong part of the discussion of weaker destinations. You would look for crab in Maryland, but what would you try in Delaware? Tourists seek out a croque monsieur in Paris, but what do they look for in Brussels?

On this line of thinking, Maine smartly uses food to promote its powerful brand. Because Maine has a strong food brand, from its amazing restaurant scene in Portland to its classic lobster, blueberries, potatoes, whoopee pies and Moxie.

And Portland brings us to another revelation – younger travelers seek more urban than rural destinations for food and things to do. Portland’s Old Port is thriving with visitors – and the city has some outstanding restaurants. As results, with its world-class arts scene and history, Portland plays top of the brand in Maine. But across the border in New Hampshire, Manchester is no slouch: The Queen City also has an incredible restaurant scene, and world class art museum, great performing and visual arts – and lots of history. But Manchester figures lightly in the promotion of the brand, and most weekends, visitors speed by on their way to mountains and lakes. Hard to understand, as Manchester has one of the hottest restaurant scenes in New England.

Show them what they want. Both pages do an admirable job in foliage season of showing fall colors – just what the travel market wants.

Lastly, a brand is built on culture and the creative economy – and Maine does a great job blogging about its unique crafts and arts scene. From locally crafted jewelry, to whiskey to folk crafts. A visit to the once-gritty town of Rockland shows how art can transform a community, and pack in visitors to see new galleries, and great art – and with that comes amazing places to eat, drink and explore.

It isn’t that NH gets things wrong; it is that the brand is undeveloped and lacks sophistication. The Granite State’s landscapes are unique- and it was the art of the 19th century that made them the focus of a budding tourism industry. My point is that to brand a destination, it takes a special mix of built and natural, local and delicious. Tax-free shopping is great at outlet malls, but that is not local – nor is surfing or even hiking – we need to look at specific hiking experiences, vistas and what it says about those who complete it.

To build a brand you need to look into the soul of a destination and explore that unique mix of place and offering – then you segment the experience to a variety of markets. NH is on that path, but could still learn a lot from the state next door.

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