We receive many questions and requests for advice from city leaders, practitioners and students around the world. I have decided to start sharing some of these requests and our responses with readers of this blog. Here is an email from Marc a tourism marketing student in South Africa, “I see materials that use the terms ‘brand image’ and ‘brand identity’ as if they are the same thing. Can you please clarify their meanings, and if they are the same thing. Additionally, how does this relate to cities and tourism destinations?”
Marc, the terms ‘image’ and ‘identity’ are often confused. Brand image relates to how the brand is perceived from the customer’s point of view, while brand identity is the unique set of visual, auditory and other stimuli that express the brand and shapes its image. Each must be deeply rooted in the foundations of the brand. Think of brand identity as being like the identity of a friend, comprised of his or her name, appearance, personality, speech, ethnicity, and personal style among many other elements. Image, on the other hand, comes from the external view and in this context relates to what people may think of your friend. It is their perceptions and therefore their reality of who that person is and what they represent.
Strong brands are built on trust. There must be alignment between what the brand promises and the reality of the actual experience. If the two are out of sync the brand will not be sustainable unless there are plans - and resources - to bridge the gap. In the case of a city, if its performance is of a high standard and its image is bad or non-existent, then it has a deficient brand strategy and may need increased or more accurate communications.
A city has a real image challenge when people outside of it do not accurately know the reality of the place. The imbalance between the internal identity and the external image of many places limits their development. This often happens when the city is projecting itself as one thing, but the reality is much different. For example, the city promotes itself as a place for romantic beach getaways, but visitors find that restaurant service is a nightmare, hotels are substandard, and that after-hour beach walkways are hard to find or poorly lit. Strong, successful brands don’t display this kind of dissonance. Destination managers must constantly monitor customer satisfaction and “test drive” the services and experiences in their own city to ensure that they the images matches the reality and is aligned with the promises that they are making.