Destination Branding: What DMOs Can Learn From The Avengers About Stakeholder Buy-in
by Ron Mattocks
Everyone at Bull Moose Marketing knows I’m a Marvel movies fan just by walking into my office. The posters on my walls, the Funko Pop collection, action figures, whatever t-shirt I’m wearing on a given day and the tattoo on my left forearm are dead giveaways.
Okay, maybe I’m a huge fan. I could wax eloquent for hours as to why I’m a fan, but for the sake of everyone’s sanity, I’ll just highlight one reason – the giddy delight I feel, seeing all the various superheroes showing up in the same movies together. When Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye assembled for the first time in 2012’s “The Avengers”— there are no words.
If you haven’t seen “The Avengers” (Really? Wow.) the basic premise is how “Earth’s mightiest heroes” overcome their individual biases and goals to form a cohesive team that defeats an extraterrestrial invasion of New York City. It’s a basic story structure, but still, there is this one unmistakable moment in the movie when they become The Avengers. Goosebumps every time.
That same moment gave me goosebumps for the 173rd time the other night, but it also caused me to think about the branding challenges destination marketing organizations (DMOs) face. (My life basically consists of work, binging Marvel movies, and remembering to bring home cat food.) More specifically, I was thinking about how much a destination’s “true” brand hinges on the buy-in and participation of its stakeholders.
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What Is This Word “Branding” You Speak Of?
Before elaborating on the connection between The Avengers and DMOs, it’s best that I establish the topical context of branding. For purposes here, branding is the promise (or unique selling point) your destination makes to potential visitors and your ability to then deliver on that promise through the visitor’s actual experience. The delivery part is key. Hypothetically, if a destination’s promise is “PA’s Year-Round Outdoor Playground” yet there are no scheduled events or amenities open for visitors in January, then that destination failed to deliver on its promise.
The obvious challenge here for DMOs is their limited ability to deliver on the brand promise they are promoting. DMOs develop and share the brand strategy, but making good on the brand strategy is largely in the hands of the destination’s stakeholders. That said, getting stakeholder buy-in and participation is essential if a destination hopes to deliver an overall consistent and positive visitor experience. It’s also hard to do.
Why? Technically, tourism stakeholders can literally be almost everyone in a destination; however, to keep things tidy we’ll group stakeholders as tourism-related businesses, destination amenities, government entities, economic development, NGOs, major employers, the local community, and the tourists themselves. Now, put them all in a room and get them to agree on the color blue. And here’s where we can return to what The Avengers and DMOs have in common.
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What DMOs Can Learn from The Avengers
For The Avengers to finally defeat an alien horde, a whole bunch of stuff (technical term) had to happen first before they eventually could function as a team. As you can probably guess, a lot of that stuff (technical term) can help DMOs looking to assemble a team of stakeholders that can deliver a brand’s promise.
1. Get them together to talk about branding and its consequences.
Once Nick Fury, the director of a secret government agency known as S.H.I.E.LD., recognized the threat to Earth, he started to gather the various superheroes on a helicarrier (which is also hella-cool). Once he had them in one room, he explained the gravity of the situation and why they were needed. Like Nick Fury, DMOs need to get their stakeholders into one room (or Zoom) to explain what true branding really is, how stakeholders can help, and the negative consequences that can affect everyone without their support.
2. Don’t be afraid to get them to provide input on the brand plan.
While Nick Fury may have guided the efforts of The Avengers, he didn’t come up with all the ideas and then order them around. That wouldn’t have worked with a group full of strong personalities. Instead, he deferred to their expertise, letting them work out solutions and handle the details. As I mentioned before, DMOs may own the brand’s strategic vision, but it’s stakeholders that make it happen. Once they understand the vision, stakeholders need to share their perspectives and offer solutions. They need to have a degree of ownership (hence the term “stakeholders”) in the plan; otherwise, they are less likely to care about participating.
3. Anticipate conflict and don’t give up on the bigger goal.
Nick Fury’s underlying concern with The Avengers was whether they could work together or not. Each superhero, till now, operated independently and had their own opinions. They spent almost as much time beating the crap out of each other as they did the aliens. In time, The Avengers finally came together to win the battle of New York; however, many of their differing opinions still resurfaced in later movies. Stakeholders represent a vast array of interests with differing and sometimes even competing needs, goals, and priorities, not to mention some strong personalities. Conflict is inevitable. DMOs need to accept this and not let it deter them from pushing forward with their branding vision.
4. Give them something universal to rally around.
While all the superheroes spent much of the film trading barbs (Ironman even called the Asgardian, Thor, a tourist for visiting Earth— hilarious) and pummelling one another, it was the death of the universally-liked Agent Coulson that provided an emotional rally point. It was this event that helped to push The Avengers into becoming a team. DMOs can also leverage rallying points to unite stakeholders. The planned arrival of a new amenity or developing a tourism improvement district can serve as rallying factors. So, too, can negative circumstances such as a population decline or economic growth or the loss of a major amenity or employer. All of these situations will affect stakeholders to some degree that should make them care about finding a solution.
5. Find your team’s champion.
In every movie about teams coming together, there’s always one character who naturally becomes the group’s leader and moral compass. For The Avengers, that person is undoubtedly Captain America. While it was Nick Fury’s vision to bring The Avengers together, it’s Captain America who maintains focus and champions the objective even to the point of confrontation with Ironman, Tony Stark. In the end, it’s Captain America who they all turn to as they prepare to take on the invading aliens. DMOs need to identify champions among their stakeholders. Champions are the ones who believe in the brand vision, are willing to advocate for it, and have the earned respect needed to win over other stakeholders.
6. Protect the brand together.
At one point during the battle of NYC, The Avengers seemed to be losing their effectiveness, so the World Council ordered Nick Fury to nuke Manhattan. Fury refused, but the Council launched it anyway, giving The Avengers a new threat to protect against. As the guided nuke nears the city, Ironman manages to redirect it up into the intergalactic space hole where it explodes and sends all the aliens to space hell. Building a destination’s brand can take years, and threats to the brand are inevitable. Outside developers might threaten the existence of a key historic amenity or pollution might ruin a waterway. Stakeholders will not want to see all their work building a brand undone by such threats. DMOs can use this as a reason to work with stakeholders on proactive steps like preservation ordinances and sustainable tourism planning to protect the brand from getting nuked.
7. Eat shawarma together.
Once the aliens have been defeated, Tony Stark makes a quip about the team checking out this shawarma place down the street. In a humorous end-credits scene, we later see the battered and exhausted Avengers at the restaurant eating shawarma in silence. The lesson for DMOs is that the battle for stakeholder buy-in might be won, but it shouldn’t end there. The relationship with stakeholders has to be continually strengthened. DMOs need to share the wins with stakeholders to encourage team comradery. They also need to make a deliberate effort to meet with stakeholders one-on-one to hear their needs. And yes, this might even involve getting some shawarma together.
The Real Secret to Stakeholder Buy-in
At the end of the movie, The Avengers all go their separate ways, back to their separate lives and challenges. This is cause for great concern to many, including Nick Fury’s bosses on the World Council who express their worry about such powerful individuals being allowed to roam free and unmonitored. Fury, however, dismisses their doubts. Later, he’s asked if The Avengers would ever assemble again. Fury is confident in answering that they would because the world will need them to. Fury doesn’t actually know for sure, but what he’s conveying is trust. He has no real means to control The Avengers as that would be detrimental to what he’s built. Trusting The Avengers to do their part when the moment comes is the best thing he can do at this point.
This really gets to the heart of the matter when working with tourism stakeholders— trust. Successful brands are built around culture and values, but too often, many organizations overlook this aspect of branding altogether. In order for destinations to deliver a consistently positive brand experience, DMOs need to take the lead in fostering a climate of trust among stakeholders which also includes being viewed as trustworthy in the eyes of stakeholders.
Nick Fury wasn’t always upfront with The Avengers who, in turn, often questioned his motives. Trust is, of course, a two-way street, and DMOs as a separate entity are a brand unto themselves. If DMOs want buy-in to their vision, they need to deliver on the value they promise to stakeholders.
If getting stakeholders to form a team of your destination’s mightiest heroes sounds impossible, it’s not. A quick search “in the Googles,” yields an overwhelming number of case studies highlighting successful branding campaigns like Minnesota’s Find Your True North and Foodtopia in Asheville, North Carolina. Avengers assembled.
You know what else I love about Marvel? They’ve managed to release movie after movie (not to mention all the TV shows) telling the intertwined stories of umpteen different superheroes to build a coherent, interconnected universe for going on fourteen years! Talk about brand consistency and stakeholder buy-in. Mind. Blown.
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