“Your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of your competitors.” — from Small Business Encyclopedia, Entrepreneur.com
Branding has always been a powerful tool to shape consumer perception and build loyalty towards products or companies. When it comes to eco-destinations, nations are no different: think Kenyan safaris, Costa Rican rainforests and Belizean scuba diving. But what about African nations such as Rwanda – the site of genocide that left an estimated 800,000 people dead only 12 years ago – or Equatorial Guinea – better known for “oil, coups and corruption”? Can these nations alter current perceptions and influence travel behavior by re-branding themselves as eco-destinations? They think they can, and along with other African nations such as Madagascar, South Africa and Mozambique are actively taking steps to do so and, in the process, gain a greater share of global eco-tourism dollars.
The rationale for re-branding is grounded in development economics: Exploration of natural resources yields a one-time play off. Eco-tourism, an alternative, offers the potential for a sustainable annuity that can preserve the environment and/or local culture. Costa Rica, for example, has done this rather successfully – attracting tourists to its protected forests and beaches – by building a national brand synonymous with conservation.
African nations have similar aspirations and, with the assistance of NGOs such as Conservational International, local tour operators and lodge/hotel owners, and national tourism boards, are building eco-destination brands. After logging 90% of its native forest, Madagascar is protecting its remaining forests. Why? Madagascar has flora and fauna unique to its island shores – including a dozen species of lemurs as well as birds, frogs and bats. Other African nations have similar natural wonders to offer around which an enduring eco-brand can be forged. Before genocide, Rwanda was better known for its gorillas (Think Dian Fossey). Equatorial Guinea is a primate “hotspot.” Mozambique has pristine beaches.
But what should be the promise of an eco-destination brand? Kenya provides one example. The Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK) defines its promise as follows: “good business with social, cultural and ecological responsibility operating in an ethical environment” (11/14/05 press release). In fact, Kenya backs its promise up with the first-ever Eco-rating Scheme. Launched in 2002, Eco-rating Scheme is a voluntary program that certifies tour operators based on their level of commitment to “sustainable tourism…[that promotes] environmental, economic and social/cultural values”. Moreover, Kenya is not alone in its branding effort: from Namibia to India, national tourist boards are considering brand campaigns based on similar promises.
So take note global marketers: branding is powerful tool that can help shape consumer perceptions and influence behavior towards not only a product or company, but toward a nation.