The Tourism Marketing Blog: Unpopular Panama

When you’re not exactly known as a tourist mecca, how do you entice more people to visit?  If you’re Panama, you turn your weakness into your greatest strength.

“We’ve got everything most people want in a vacation, except most people” is at once an appeal to travelers seeking something off the beaten path and a promise of comparative solitude.  Most importantly, the brand promise is true to one of the fundamental rules of tourism marketing: be true to yourself and true to what people believe to be true about you.

Panama skates dangerously close to a “best kept secret” strategy here, but manages to put a fresh spin on the idea of positioning a brand based on its relatively small customer base.  Luxury brands use this type of exclusivity to add prestige and badge value to their brand.  But can you position a destination brand (and in this case a whole country) on the idea that it attracts very few visitors?

Florida’s Space Coast thinks so.

Presenting a brand, product or service as a “best kept secret” has always struck me at best as a quaint throwback to the days of covered wagons and snake oil, and at worst as a sign of brutally lazy strategic planning.  It’s right up there with strategies that begin with “Discover…” or “Visit…”.  The fact that very few people buy (or have ever even heard of) your brand is pretty weak rationale for making a “secret” claim.  Marketers are always trying to turn unknown or low-selling products into  “niche brands.”  But there’s often a more apt description for “niche” brands:  crap products and services that no one wants to buy.  The Pontiac Aztek, for example, was a niche brand that appealed to such a niche market that it eventually va-niche-d altogether.

But back to the role of real and perceived truth in tourism marketing.  If you’re like me you probably haven’t thought much about Panama since Noriega was ousted to the strains of Bon Jovi.  And though I haven’t checked its tourism satellite account lately, I don’t think Panama is exactly lighting up the scoreboard with record arrivals.

But there is a role in the tourism world for a destination brand that offers an escape from the often over-commercialised world of travel product.  It may work for Panama.  The Space Coast, on the other hand, is so intimately tied to most peoples’ perceptions of Florida that its lack of “tourists” may be seen as more of a negative than a positive.  We’ll watch and see how long they remain on this track.

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