by: David Wigder
"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.