In mid-November Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Bollywood star Akshay Kumar posed with the 2010 Olympic torch in Mumbai. The picture and story went around the world, all carefully masterminded by the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Kumar, the Brad Pitt of India, is one of 13 international celebrities the CTC inserted into the torch relay with the intention of generating media attention in their home countries . It was just one of the many subtle ways the CTC is getting “brand Canada” out into the world.
“We are doing tons of stuff like that to leverage the Olympics,” says Greg Klassen, senior vice-president of marketing for the Vancouver-based CTC.
“We are trying to create media stories where none may otherwise exist.” What’s not part of the strategy is a multi-million dollar advertising campaign telling the world about the Games . As Michele McKenzie, CTC president and CEO says, the idea is not to bring more visitors to the Olympics, but to get those visitors to Canada once the torch has long been extinguished . “The legacy for us starts the day the G ames end : How much did that new awareness translate into interest in travel and how much does that convert into actual travel?” says McKenzie, who joined CTC in 2004 and has guided its evolution into a fully integrated brand marketing organization .
The CTC launched the “Keep Exploring” brand in 2006, effectively throwing out a half century of mountains, moose and maple syrup in favour of urban edge and hard-core adventures told from a traveller’s point of view. In the hugely competitive tourism industry, countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom outspend the CTC’s $40-million annual market budget by about two to one.
To compete, the CTC took the road less travelled this year, embarking on a ground-breaking social media strategy; launching its fi rst integrated global marketing platform; and launching the “Locals Know” campaign, aimed at getting Canadians to travel within their own country . All this adds up to the CTC being named Marketing’s 2009 Marketer of the Year.
“What everyone needs to understand are the ingredients it takes to move a country as a brand from number 12 to number two,” says Frank Palmer, chairman and CEO, DDB Canada, the CTC’s agency of record, referring to the FutureBrand Country Brand Index. “You need a client who is brave enough to try something new and different and a communications company brave enough to suggest the recipe.”
The CTC’s bold move into the social media space began in November 2008, when it rolled out its fi rst global marketing strategy using 15-second clips of user-generated content found on YouTube and other social networking sites. One ad showed a man zip-trekking 15 stories above a whitewater river in Whistler, while another showed an iceberg collapsing to the amazement of those aboard a nearby boat. The CTC added the tag line, “Canada, Keep Exploring,” and the URL, canada.travel.
Today, the CTC also has 325 two-minute videos shot by DDB in a couple of hundred locations across Canada ready to “feed and seed” on the Internet, says Klassen.
The brief from CTC asked DDB to explore and share stories about authentic, unexpected, uniquely Canadian experiences that would foster intrigue around Canada as a destination, explains Nora Ahern, the agency’s vice-president, business director. These were then fi ltered through one of the CTC’s fi ve unique selling points (vibrant cities, personal journeys, active adventure, award-winning local cuisine and connecting with Canadians), and told from the point of view of travellers talking to travellers, and in some cases, locals talking to travellers about what a particular area has to offer.
Ahern says rather than source videos from the Internet, this time they decided it was more effective to develop and fi lm the stories themselves.
“We sent fi lm crews to locations across Canada to capture various experiences that each locale offers,” she says.
The videos will sit in a digital asset management system, tagged with one of the CTC’s three core target groups and ready for distribution through social media. For instance, a story about kite surfi ng in New Brunswick is ready in the event there is some buzz either in the traditional media or online. “If suddenly kite surfi ng becomes interesting and more people are talking about it, we’ll feed that story out there to the blogosphere or websites,” says Klassen.
In one video, Ted Grant, owner of Simpson Air in the Northwest Territories takes passengers in his fl oat plane over breathtaking scenery.
In another, Christina Zeidler, owner of Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel talks about the restoration and heritage of the hotel . Eventually, all the clips will live on the CTC’s YouTube Channel. “ We are inserting the idea of Canada into the conversation,” says Klassen. “We can try and create the conversation ourselves, or we can respond to the conversations that are already happening in the social media world.”
Travellers are looking for the opinions of other travellers, says McKenzie.
“Not only do we have a tone of voice that is traveller to traveller, but we are able to leverage the real communications of real travellers in support of the brand, so it is perfectly aligned with our strategy.”
She adds that while Canadians love photos of beautiful mountains and lakes, potential customers were having a hard time putting themselves into those isolated-looking settings. “The way we experience that photograph and the way uninformed potential customers experience that are very different things,” she says. “While we know that there’s a big hotel there in the next frame, the customers don’t know that. They might see it as wilderness with a bear behind the tree. That’s scary and very far away from their idea of a four-star resort.”
Alan Middleton, professor of marketing at the Schulich Executive Education Centre at York University and co-author of Ikonica: A Field Guide to Canada’s Brandscape, says that Canada seemed to be a place for the lonely. “All you ever saw in Canada’s traditional advertising were deserted lakes and mountains; it was definitely not a fun place to be at all,” he says. “I would think it was where the paranoid and the lonely went.”
By using real stories and not trying to overly control the message, the CTC is choosing the right strategy, he says. “The academic research on tourism tells us the number one reason for visiting a destination is what friends have said about their trips,” he says. “And mostly it’s not so much about what they’ve seen, but it’s about stories of how much fun they’ve had, and that’s the power of social network marketing because that’s the friends telling friends.”
Part of the ongoing success of the CTC’s social media marketing is its commitment to keeping an ear to the ground through Radar DDB.
Justin Young, managing director, says monitoring the space is probably the most crucial part and why DDB has invested a significant amount of money developing its Community Cultivation Team, which it offers to a range of clients.
“It’s a real surgical, very hands-on approach,” says Young. “It’s going into each of those conversations online, joining those conversations with a tailored message and then monitoring those successes. As of now, we’ve had 1.2 million views of the CTC content, which is pretty ground-breaking considering it’s a pioneering effort for a tourism organization.”
The Community Cultivation Team has five people in Vancouver, one in Mexico, one in the U.K., one in Germany and one in France. Come the Olympics those numbers will increase, says Young. “They monitor everything. They measure the blogosphere, Twitter and forums. Not only do they see where people are having those conversations [about Canadian travel], but they are able to determine the sentiment as well.” In the case of negative sentiment, such as the uproar over the Canadian government’s announcement in July that Mexicans would require a visa to travel to Canada, the team was there to try to change those negative perceptions. For example, they provided information to make it easier to get through the visa process, and at the same time, reinforced the message that Mexicans were welcome in Canada. Taking it one step further, the team went to Vancouver International Airport and held a party for people getting off Mexican flights, showering them with gifts, filming people’s reactions and then sending the video off into the social media sphere.
And while most of the CTC’s marketing happens outside the country in its key markets of the U.S., France, Germany and the U.K., the agency received $10 million in one-time funding to produce a campaign targeting Canadians. Called “Locals Know,” the goal of the campaign was to convince 240,000 Canadians who were planning a vacation abroad, to stay home for their holidays instead. The campaign encouraged Canadians to take a “staycation” and showed little-known destinations such as rolling sands in Saskatchewan, horseback riders on a volcano in B.C., and people swimming in the blue waters of Georgian Bay. The visuals had the headline, “Where is this?” and executions ran on television, in print and online. Later, the CTC added the favourite destinations of 30 famous Canadians, such as Olympic sprinting champion Donovan Bailey and actor Gordon Pinsent, to the site.
“We are trying to recapture that customer who is looking to go abroad to have more interesting exotic experiences,” says Klassen. “That was a very good key insight and it basically says you don’t have to leave this country to find exotic, interesting and off-the-beaten track [experiences]. You just have to know where to find it and locals know. From a social media perspective, the Locals Know campaign engaged people who said ‘this used to be the best kept secret, but I’m willing to share it with you.’ ” PR buzz generated 39 million media impressions valued at over $1.1 million and Forbes magazine ranked the campaign as one of the top 10 travel campaigns in the world. Ad-tracking research for the summer campaign put aided recall at 70%. Another 88% found the ads visually appealing, 84% found them interesting, 76% unique and 66% considered the ads better than other travel ads.
For the second year, the influential New York-based FutureBrand Country Brand Index voted Canada the second most respected country brand in the world. That ranking followed on the heels of Lonely Planet naming Canada one of the top 10 countries to visit and Montreal the world’s second favourite party city, after Belgrade, Serbia.
Steven Santangelo, senior director of consulting at FutureBrand, says Canada finished second out of 102 countries, ranked first in best country brand for families, for resort and lodging options, for safety, for political freedom and best country you would most like to live in.
Overall, Future Brand measured 29 different image attributes and Canada ranked in the top 10 for 22 of them, says Santangelo. “The CTC has done a fantastic job of capturing the essence of what Canada is about and Keep Exploring does a great job of giving you a feeling of the ethos of Canadians and it’s very likeable,” says Santangelo. “You can have a campaign like Keep Exploring which everybody thinks is really nice, but if you don’t change people’s perceptions and ultimately their behaviour it doesn’t mean anything.”
In other words, the message is getting out there and attitudes and perceptions about the country Canada are changing. And it’s the CTC’s job to make sure these successes also translate into travellers. “We’ve got awareness now, and our strategy right now is in a build phase, then we’ll execute the Olympics. But the payoff will be in how well we are able to convert that new interest in Canada to future business. Not right away… but in 2011, 2012 and 2013,” says McKenzie.
“We learned that from Australia when they hosted the Olympics they felt they had a great strategy,” she adds. “When the Games ended they high-fived each other and said ‘that was fantastic,’ but they didn’t work to convert that new awareness into business.”
The Olympics, adds Klassen, is the single greatest opportunity the tourism industry will have in this generation. “We’ve captured the world’s attention and we’ve helped change some perceptions about what Canada is all about.”
Judging by the work it’s done this year, you can bet the CTC team will be high-fiving each other long down the road.