Marketing the UK abroad in a post-devolution world

LONDON - British tourism is struggling to find a strategy that fits the nation and its regions

National identity is, politically speaking, a thorny issue. Since power was devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the question of what role the UK has left to play in the future of its component parts has never been satisfactorily answered.

The battle between national and regional identities is replicated in the organisations controlling domestic tourism, which have been subject to countless changes. The Development of Tourism Act 1969 created the British Tourism Authority (BTA), as well as the English, Welsh and Scottish Tourist Boards. In 2003, the government merged the BTA and English Tourist Board to form a national body with a marketing remit, VisitBritain.

To confuse matters further, last week a Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) report confirmed plans to reintroduce a semi-autonomous organisation representing the interests of English tourism - VisitEngland.

Crucially, the DCMS is advocating a change of role for VisitBritain. Less involved in the planning of marketing campaigns, the report says the organisation should take on a more administrative approach, formulating strategy for government and the travel industry, and establishing an overseas network of shared marketing tools and platforms.

According to the report, the nations will be marketed individually in countries familiar with the regional make-up of the UK. These will include the US, Australia and New Zealand and short-haul destinations in Europe. Marketing focusing on Britain as a whole will be aimed elsewhere, such as China.

Ken Kelling, communications director at Visit London, says that while the international presence of VisitBritain is vital to support the tourism bodies

in overseas markets, countries that have traditionally been a strong source of inbound visitors are ready to look beyond 'Brand Britain'.

'What visitors think is paramount, so the on-the-ground presence of Visit-Britain is essential. But you could say there is going to be a further education process,' says Kelling. 'London is now the lead brand for promoting the country, in light of the [2012 Olympic] Games. The next challenge is how you get people off the beaten track, both in terms of London and the rest of the UK.'

Robert Jones, a consultant at brand agency Wolff Olins, which recently rebranded Visit London, believes that the DCMS is correct to move away from the promotion of Britain.

'In brand terms, this is the right thing to do. It's much easier to create meaning around England, Wales and Scotland than around Britain, which doesn't mean much to foreign tourists. But if they're really clever, they'll create some kind of brand link, so that people can see that the three countries belong together,' he says.

So is this the death of 'Brand Britain'? Keith Beecham, overseas network director at VisitBritain, agrees that from 2010 the brand may disappear from view in many markets, but maintains it still has a role to drive initial awareness.

'It's a question of the shape of the marketing changing. We have identified many markets that need to be Britain-led, and the increasing presence of England, Scotland, Wales and London in those countries allows us to put more money into marketing there,' he says.

The final word should go to destination brand consultant Simon Anholt, a contributor to the DCMS report, who uses an analogy from the film Forrest Gump.

'Countries like Britain need to adopt what I call a "box of chocolates" brand architecture. The brand on the outside of the box is "Britain", and when familiarity is low, we should market the box. When familiarity is higher, we can open the box and introduce the individual chocolates.'

It is an apt metaphor, given the short attention span of domestic tourism chiefs and the continual restructuring of tourism boards. Rather than reorganise again after the 2012 Games, perhaps now is the time to settle on this definitive strategy once and for all.

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