A quick thought experiment: first, think about vacationing in Mexico. If you're like most people, what comes to mind is chilling on the beach. Now, think of the last article or TV news spot you saw on Mexico. Again, if you are typical, what may surface in your brain is a news item on the drug-related violence of the cartels.
This was the situation facing the Mexico Tourism Board and their lead communications agency, Ogilvy Public Relations, in 2010. Yet by addressing the elephant in the room they have worked to rebrand Mexico and challenge what consumers, travel partners and the press thought they knew about the country. As a result, 2011 saw significant improvement in Mexico's brand metrics and, more importantly, record tourism .
The first obstacle to turning around Mexico's brand relative to tourism was facing up to the problem caused by the negative publicity about drug violence. The old approach was to stay silent and hope the news stories would stop. However, as Ogilvy PR's lead for the project, Jennifer Risi, stated, "Unless you are out there talking and putting those stories in context, you are losing the messaging battle." For example, per Risi, prior to implementing the new strategy CNN had run more than fifty stories in a row focused on the drug issue.
While taking the issue head-on was a scary prospect for the Tourism Board, they stepped up to the plate. Gerardo Llanes, the CMO of the Tourism Board, agreed with the strategy, acknowledging that "being quiet was not working, especially for the tourism industry." To overcome the negative image they would need to craft a message to the media and their travel partners to put the issue in context.
The other challenge was the limited view of what vacationing in Mexico meant to American consumers. The team wanted to move beyond the "fly and flop" on the beach view of Mexico as a tourist destination and communicate the many other things the country has to offer.
To succeed on both fronts the team crafted a clear message that attacked both issues, coming up with the slogan, "Mexico: the place you thought you knew."  The message provided the opportunity to talk about all that Mexico had to offer, put the violence issue in context, and also be tailorable to the press, travel partners and consumers.
The key proof points behind the message were twofold: one, showing that Mexico offers much more than just beaches by showcasing the country's adventure travel, cultural sites, and tours for foodies. Secondly, communicating the fact that, while there is violence in the country, it's limited to a few areas. Per Llanes, out of 2500 municipalities, only 80 are significantly affected.
The campaign had three components to address the different audiences. A tour featuring face-to-face meetings with press and travel partners was implemented. With the press the goal was to share the facts about where the violence was located and showing the areas to which it was limited. The press wasn't asked to stop the stories but only to balance them with the additional context. With travel partners, some of whom were on the verge of pulling out of the country, the objective was to convince them to not only stay but to expand their offerings. Partners were also used to create video testimonials about Mexico that could be utilized with both other partners and consumers and spread through paid and social media.
For consumers the goal was not only to bring back more Americans and Canadians (the typical visitors) but to export Mexico's message to other countries as well. To do that two approaches, primarily testimonial, were used.
The first was built around the "the place you thought you knew" slogan and used videos produced by the Tourism Board and partners to get the message across. This included testimonials from U.S. expats who spoke about how great it was to live in Mexico. The second was the Mexico Taxi Project . This innovative approach was built on the fact that research done by Millward Brown had shown that 95% of visitors to Mexico would return again. The way it worked was that tourists returning from Mexico were picked up at the airport in (what appeared to be normal) cabs and then asked how their trip went. Their responses were captured on camera and were uniformly positive and very powerful. As Llanes stated, "people want to hear from people like them".
To get the word out the team increased its digital budget from 10% to 30% and created the "We Visit Mexico"  page on Facebook for visitors to post their Mexican vacation pictures. In the process, the brand's "likes" went from about ten thousand to more than half-a-million.
For an effort that started a relatively short time ago, Mexico's approach has yielded very promising results. Per Risi the press has balanced their stories with positives as well as the negatives and travel partners have grown their business in Mexico. And according to Llanes, Mexico's ranking in the Y&R Brand Perception Index has recovered after falling in 2010, international tourist visits hit a record 22.67 million, Mexico grew its share of American tourists travelling internationally from 16% to 19% and it increased visits from other countries such as Brazil (65%), China (32%), Colombia (23.2%) and Italy (13%).
By taking on the issues it faced, building a strong message and executing a smart strategy Mexico has made progress on rebranding itself and growing its tourism business.
[Image: Flickr user Hugh Bell ]