David Bowen: How countries sell themselves online

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I have been looking at national and regional tourism sites. My impetus came from the Nations Brand Index (www.nationbrandindex.com), which ranks countries on various aspects. ‘Tourism is often the most visibly promoted aspect of the nation brand,’ I read, so off I went to see how various countries were selling themselves online.

Websites are interesting transmitters of brand, because they do the job in two ways. The first is deliberate – what message is the owner trying to give off about itself. The other is unavoidable. What does the site say about the promoter by the way it works, is written, looks like? To get to grips with the second aspect, you have to start using the site – which is of course what potential tourists will do.

Having wandered around the world on my computer, I can classify countries into three groups on the deliberate branding side. Those that are happy with their current brands and want to reinforce them, those that are trying to do the opposite, and those that are out of control.

In the first category, New Zealand (www.newzealand.com/travel) has a changing slide show of mountains, lakes, rivers – reinforcing the view many of us already have from Lord of the Rings, King Kong or the other films that have made the country the biggest star on the planet. Germany (www.germany-tourism.de) has a site that looks, well, German, but in a nice way. It is clean, uncluttered, and uses rotating home page images that include the ancient (castles on the Rhine), and modern (Berlin buildings), with plenty of clean-living children along the way. The English is slightly odd, but in a comforting way – lots of exclamation marks, and a slightly jerky style.

The British site (www.visitbritain.com) comes in the second category. The opening page, where you select your country, has a photo of the School of Art in Glasgow. Within the country sites, which share a common template, the colour scheme is sober, and avoids the traditional red, white and blue. You will struggle to find pictures of Beefeaters or cricket matches. What does it say about the brand? That the UK is not what you were expecting, perhaps? Or that it is just a bit drab? You decide.

The out of control group is typified by France (www.franceguide.com). The home page is frankly naff, with an over-large picture, garish colours, and unnecessary animation. Not the sophistication we would expect. We have to put the US in this group too, though for a different reason. The country does not have a single tourism site – type ‘USA tourism’ into Google and you are directed to a site (www.usatourism.com) that has clearly been set up by an enterprising individual who is not however a graphic design wizard. It might most kindly be described as quaint.

What about the image that comes across unconsciously – how well do these sites work, and what does that tell us about the countries?

Well, most developed countries have poured huge resources into their tourism web presences, and it shows. The difference is in how well the money was spent. The most successful country I have looked at is Germany, because it has not tried to be too clever. It has an international site (www.germany-tourism.de), which is available in German and English and has some neat features. In the recreation section different set of pages serve families, young people and disabled travellers. Within the cycling area, an interactive device lets you find a route that, for example, takes in art and culture but is manageable by children. This ‘user-centred’ approach is a good way of helping people who have a vague idea of what they want (that is, most tourists), while choosers sensibly exploit the interactive abilities of the web.

Germany is also wise in not trying to create an all-singing presence that covers all countries. Instead, sites for different nationalities are produced locally, and while they look similar they have distinct content (See for example www.allemagne-tourisme.com for France and www.cometogermany.com for the US).

Other countries have gone for the integrated approach. The logic – that content can be shared and the brand controlled – makes good sense, but practicalities often overwhelm theory. New Zealand promotes its Travel Planner on the home page – I clicked the link in the hope it would be some sort of device to help me choose the right holiday. Instead it is … well, I don’t really know, because there is no introduction or help page. It seems to be a way of bookmarking pages on the site, but it must be more than that. I suspect the tourist office paid quite a lot for this device, which may indeed be clever, and I dare say will be worked out by some people. But others will just be irritated. Is that good for the brand?

The UK site is exceptionally sophisticated and, where it works, impressive. There are about 35 national versions, and the degree of localisation and translation is good. Within each version, the dominant feature is My Travel Plan. This is a device that allows potential visitors to find the places they want to visit, identify accommodation, events, and attractions, and assemble them into an electronic brochure.

There is a huge amount of detail on the UK site, and if you have the patience, you can gather what you need in one electronic (or printed) place. But I did not find it particularly easy to use. I had to use the back button a lot as I clicked my way around Scotland, and came across some distressing results: Inverness apparently has no attractions. Also, perhaps inevitably, the technology creaked more than on other sites. I can’t help feeling that a simpler system might be more useful for all but the most dedicated internet traveller.

But the country that should be most worried about its brand is France. It too has integrated sites serving many nationalities, and in places localisation is good. There are Gay-Friendly France sections on the UK and US sites, for example, but not the Irish or Indian ones. But elsewhere, the site is just falling to bits. Go to the Czech Republic site, and the only Czech you will find is a single page of ‘practical information’. The rest is in English except for some of the links. Which are in Dutch. Odd, or what?

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com.

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