could not sleep the night before my birthday. My mind was buzzing, not
with dreams of birthday cake but with thoughts of what I had experienced earlier in the day. I was flying home overnight from Ecuador where I had just conducted a seminar for a group of CEOs. The more than 70
executives in the room collectively represented about 30% of Ecuador’s
GDP. Harvard Business Review had gathered them together to network and
learn, and they asked me to facilitate the session.
corporate leaders assembled in a banquet room brainstorming creative
strategies for solving a critical challenge for their capital: how can we turn Quito, Ecuador’s capital, into a major tourist destination?
can draw exciting answers to this question through the ancient Chinese
saying “create something out of nothing.” This is not to say that Ecuador has “nothing” now;
it has some of the richest natural and historical attractions in the
world. But this strategy seems to lie at the heart of the successes of
the world’s great tourist destinations, as well as the world’s most well-known products. Understanding this principle could lead to new visitors, customers, and sales.
Construct your destination
categories really are social constructions: they exist only because
people tacitly agree to act as if they exist. Examples include money,
tenure, citizenship, decorations for bravery, and the presidency of the
– Steven Pinker, “The Blank State”
world is opening in ways unimagined. Tourists are pouring into China,
India, and Dubai, places that ten years ago only the most daring
visited. And yet, the number one tourist country continues to be
France. It attracts 70 to 80 million visitors per year, almost 50% more than the two countries tied for second place.
Great Wall, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and India’s 5,000 years of
history cannot compete with “France.” But what is “France?” Why do more
tourists visit Paris than any other city in the world? Ask a few who
have and you will confront a bewildering network of objects – cafés,
baguettes, croissants, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, wine,
ornate architecture, windy streets – that together create what the
world knows to be “Paris.”
This “Paris” is dramatically different from the one
Parisians live in. When my wife (who lived in Paris for a while) and I
visited one of my best friends from business school, we saw that few of
the things Paris conjures up for tourists are part of a Parisian’s
everyday life. That seems to be a common theme for most tourist destinations. For instance, I live in New York and only went to the Statue of Liberty when my in-laws visited.
customers are probably less attracted by what your product actually is
than by the imaginary image they have constructed in their minds. Destinations that hold great brand value have been smart in how they shaped their mental destination: Costa Rica means parrots, jungles and surfing; Jamaica means Bob Marley and beaches; Disney means Mickey Mouse, family and castles; Las Vegas means crazy things happening in hotel rooms; New Orleans means jazz and Bourbon Street.
Managing the symbols and associations your customers have with your product or service is an art. Be strategic about it and you can wire a web in their brains that captures their interest and gives them warm feelings that makes them want more.
our workshop we broke into groups of about five and each explored,
among other things, what Quito’s mental destination could be. It was
one of the first cities designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO
(in the 1970s), it lies just a few hours away from the ecologically
diverse Galapagos Islands, it was one of the capitals of the Inca Empire, and it’s also
known for artwork. By enhancing the right symbols and strategically
shaping the story, the hope is Quito could craft an irresistible mental
Create an occasion
At 11pm in a bar, after a few drinks with a group of friends (assuming you are of the right age range), someone eventually and naturally comes up with an idea: “Let’s get a round of tequila shots!”
Who put this idea in your head? Tequila makers, of course. They have
for years been strategically building and reinforcing the “tequila
Procter & Gamble nearly
pulled the plug on one of its most successful new product launches. No
one was buying Febreze. But to the luck of millions of musty bed
sheets, P&G gave it one more shot. They changed the imagery of
their advertising from those women unpacking sweaters pulled down from
the attic to images of women making beds. Their goal was to create a
By linking your product/services to your customers’ environments, you can trigger the proper response. The idea of “pulling out sweaters at the end of the summer” happens too rarely (just once per year) to offer a useful product hook. So P&G had to give it a new identity and a repeating image – make Bed, spray Febreze; make Bed, spray Febreze; make Bed, spray Febreze. Then P&G was able to establish a trigger for the product. They created the Febreze occasion.
tourist destinations, it seems to me, leverage this principle as well.
Disney’s “I’m going to Disney World” campaign linked a visit to its
theme parks to a major life celebration (graduation, winning the Super Bowl, etc.). Despite the fact that Marti Gras started in Alabama, New Orleans was able to develop the celebration as a major engine for its tourist visits. And each year, tens of thousands of people gather in a Nevada dessert for Burning Man, a week of building art, trading goods, partying, burning a giant statue, and then leaving with no trace of them having been there. Burning Man has become an occasion on its own out of nothing.
So to create a tourist destination, or create any product/service into an irresistible destination of its own, consider the ancient Chinese stratagem “Create something out of nothing.” Ask yourself:
1. What symbols – characters, historical events, of existing structures/images – can I use to construct a mental identify for my product/service?
2. What occasions – making a bed, graduating from school – can I link my product/service to?