Hong Kong is a startling place to live. It has the most number of restaurants and Rolls-Royce's per capita in the world. Its name in English means "Fragrant Harbour", which is a bit generous. It has the world's longest outdoor escalator. Three-quarters of its land mass is rural, and it consists of 235 islands. It is constantly on the move, is a rich mix of Chinese, colonial and cosmopolitan and intersperses traditional streetside wet markets with some of the world's tallest buildings. I stopped off in the city on my way to live in New Zealand 21 years ago and never left. It captivated me. Love it or loathe it, Hong Kong is a living brand.
I remember a TV commercial when I first got here that used the phrase "Wonders Never Cease", I thought then how appropriate it was for this city. Hong Kong doesn't do things by halves, and that line seems perennially apt. Yet since then we've had a bucketload of other daft phrases to try and express what the Hong Kong brand is all about. Let me see now. "Live It, Love It", "We Are Hong Kong, City of Life", "Hong Kong Will Take Your Breath Away", "There's No Place Like Hong Kong", and of course we've been encumbered with "Asia's World City" for a while now. I'd like to propose another: "Hong Kong: City of More Daft Slogans than Any Other Territory or City on the Planet".
This got me thinking about how other cities and countries go about representing their brands. Probably top of the list in Asia in terms of longevity is Malaysia's "Truly Asia". India's "Incredible India"and Thailand's "Amazing Thailand" have also being doing the rounds for a while. Then you've got some quirky ones in the mix _ Bangladesh's "Come to Bangladesh before the Tourists" has a certain self-deprecating but equally "Why are there no tourists?" charm.
I know Wales isn't exactly in Asia, but I loved their "Wales: The Big Country" theme. I mean you can drive around the whole country in a day. "Wales: Quite Small Actually" would be more honest.
I quite liked the courage of the Australians in spreading the "Where the Bloody Hell Are You?" gospel around the globe, but then the spoilsport British banned it and the Antipodean bureaucrats replaced it with something more bland than the original tag line had been challenging: "There's Nothing Like Australia". Clearly "Safety First" had become the new policy, but would it have been asking too much to provide some meaningful insights into why there is "Nothing Like' the Lucky Country?
So, one may ask, what makes a great piece of marketing for a country brand? Is it the tag line? Is it the consistency of the theme over time? Is it the visuals? The promotions? Hong Kong came up with the mind-numbingly creative "Hong Kong Shopping Festival". Why do we need a festival for shopping? I thought Hong Kong was always a shopper's paradise _ although I wouldn't know, as shopping gets me about as excited as filling in my tax forms and putting on a damp wetsuit. Anyway, I digress.
No, none of the above is why a country's brand marketing is successful. The key to success is the degree to which the claims made through the billions of dollars' worth of annual destination marketing are relevant, understandable and true. If visitors feel a destination was less "Promised Land" and more "Perjuries and Lies", then not only will their experience have been an unexpected and unhappy one but also they will feel deceived, making it doubly likely they won't return.
This brings me to New Zealand and the Philippines, respectively conveying their national brands as "100% Pure Zealand" and "It's More Fun in the Philippines". Both are simple, distinctive and compelling ideas. But what transforms the ideas from cute advertising lines into compelling business ideas is they both have their messages planted in truths.
Despite the fact that humans have made a mess of much of our fair planet, New Zealand is about as pure as it gets _ well, at least when it comes to places inhabited by us. I mean, New Zealand even banned US nuclear-powered naval vessels in 1986, causing an international furore. And their ice cream is pretty pure too.
As for the "It's More Fun" theme from our Pinoy cousins to the east, I can think of few more appropriate descriptors of that nation. Yes, it could be swapped for "It's More Frustrating in the Philippines" or "It Takes Too Long to Get Anywhere in the Philippines", but hey, we all have our own issues. For me, whether on business or travelling the islands on vacation, Filipinos are positive, happy, playful and immensely hospitable. And this playful sense of hospitality is a distinct characteristic of their culture _ of their brand.
One particularly important element of the "fun" marketing focus is Filipinos think of themselves in this way, so the marketing is like a clarion call for them to be proud and celebrate their natural joie de vivre. You only need to go to YouTube to see how many Philippine businesses, groups and individuals have rallied around this campaign by creating their own content to support it.
So for all those countries figuring out what to say about themselves to increase numbers of inbound travellers, remember to take a long, hard look at the reality of what your nation or city has to offer before you craft your tag lines and catchy advertising jingles. But be careful you don't get too honest with this reality thing, as you'll end up in something of a muddle _ like Honduras, officially the world's most dangerous country and which proudly proclaims "It's All Here in Honduras". Of that there seems little doubt.
James Stuart provides branding guidance to companies throughout Asia, specialising in the hospitality and service industries. He is managing partner of The Brand Company and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information see www.thebrandco.com
About the author
Writer: James Stuart