Marketing tips from that big bold brand we call Canada

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By Leo Valiquette

The Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) is one of Canada’s leading marketing organizations, tasked with making the most of the fact that, when it comes to having a globally recognized brand in the international tourism industry, Canada ranks number one.

CTC president and CEO Michele McKenzie spoke at the Ottawa Chamber’s monthly Eggs n’ Icons breakfast this morning about how the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver served as a platform for promoting that brand to the world and how, in the Olympics’ “afterglow,” the challenge remains on how to capitalize on all that positive press.

International tourism is a huge and growing market. According to McKenzie, emerging economies are firing shots across the bow of traditional, more established tourism destinations that must scramble to maintain market share, redefine their messaging and ensure their brand remains visible in markets such as Brazil, China and Korea. These emerging markets are experiencing dramatic growth in the volume of outbound travellers versus “traditional” sources of foreign tourists, such as France, Germany and Great Britain.

While Canada has experienced steady growth in the volume of foreign visitors, 80 per cent of our tourism industry remains driven by domestic tourists. While this is a rich and valued customer base, McKenzie acknowledged, and rightly so, that it is limited, especially compared to a market such as China, which expects to have 100 million (yes, that number is correct) outbound tourists heading to international destinations by 2020.

As a big brand with a premium product to sell, we need to put ourselves on the radar of these huge new customer segments. As with any business, we can’t afford to keep most of our eggs in one basket. Market diversification is crucial to long-term sustainability.

In 2010, the CTC saw a huge opportunity with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The CTC didn’t set out to promote the Olympics, but to use it as a platform to showcase Canada abroad with the international media.
The challenge was to “get those three billion viewers of the Olympics to stop thinking about Canada as ‘a place I want to visit before I die,’ to ‘a place I want to visit right now,’” McKenzie said. Building a rapport with the international media was crucial.

The CTC soon found that the international media were eager to eat up anything that the CTC could provide to flesh out their coverage of the Olympics. As our own Francis Moran and Cyan Solutions’ Kathryn Schwab explored in last week’s Zone5ive event, media today are starved for resources. Providing them with pre-packaged multimedia content for easy consumption can be key to gaining top tier coverage.

It was no different for the CTC. For the first time, it found itself serving as a content provider. Never before had it given such volumes of raw b-roll to media to edit and package as they saw fit. In the past, the emphasis had always been on managing the message as much as possible. But the new approach paid off in spades with reams of international exposure for Canada as a place to visit.

Another angle the CTC took was to make the torch relay, which was the longest ever, appeal to international audiences as more than just “a bunch of Canadians running around Canada.” Foreign media personalities and celebrities, such as Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, Indian Ambassador for the Games, were invited to run in the relay. The result? High profile individuals such as Kumar became enthusiastic promoters of Canada in their home countries.

In the wake of the Olympics, the CTC is already tracking some preliminary gains from its efforts. The number of foreign visitors from the U.K. and Australia, for example, has more than doubled between 2009 and 2010.

However, much remains to be done. Now that the demand, the market appetite, has been generated, it must be fed. As with any product or service that has caught the interest of a large and lucrative customer base, the worst thing that can happen next is failing to have in place the logistics, infrastructure and processes to balance supply and demand.

On this front, Canada remains burdened by a visa system far more onerous than those found in many of the other destinations it is competing against. We also lag other markets in terms of open skies agreements that provide easy air access and one-stop flights to Canada.

McKenzie cited the example of Brazil. Last year, one million Brazilian tourists visited the U.S., but only 68,000 came to Canada. There is only one direct flight from Brazil to Canada. All other available flights must route through the U.S., which requires two visas instead of one. Faced with that headache, is it any wonder that most Brazilians favour the U.S. over Canada?

But of course, to build a healthy and sustainable business, one cannot afford to ignore whatever untapped opportunities remain in a mature market while pursuing new ones. For the CTC, that means reaching out to Canada’s youth.

According to McKenzie, most young people today “view international tourism as their birthright” thanks to the influence of their globe-trotting baby boomer parents. The marketing challenge here is to sell them on the merits of exploring their own country before they spend their tourism dollars abroad.

“Tourism is a rapidly expanding sector,” McKenzie said. “One I see as a high stakes game.”

But are the stakes any different for businesses in other sectors trying to grow and compete in today’s global marketplace? As the CTC understands, regardless of your industry, defining and executing a strategic marketing program is key.

Photo from: Seeklogo

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