Cultural Stereotypes in Tourism: Valuable Brand Asset or an Affront to the Locals?

June 3, 2010 |  by admin  |  Advertising, Marketing  |  , ,

Newfoundland is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth.  And it boasts a unique culture that, in places, has been described as being more authentically Irish than most parts of modern day Ireland.  In the outports around Ferryland, the locals still play and sing traditional Irish songs long forgotten by most Irishmen.  A recent photography exhibit in St. John's featured pairings of photos showing Newfoundlanders and Irishmen who shared the same name.  While the bloodlines have been separated for generations, the common DNA was obvious and striking.

In a Canadian context, some have argued that the province of Newfoundland is as culturally distinct as that of Quebec.  And yet, while Quebec has made the French language an integral part of its destination brand, Newfoundland has always been reluctant to use the colorful local phrases and regional accents in its tourism advertising.

If you're not familiar with the "stereotypical" (and they don't all speak this way) Newfoundland accent, check out this recent ad for the Nissan Bonavista. 

For a milder version of the Newfy accent (and as an antidote to those who equate the accent with a lack of intellect or education), check out the CBC's Rex Murphy or Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams.  On YouTube, TrollCollins offers an interesting perspective on the Newfoundland dialect.

When the Nissan Bonavista ad broke, it sparked a minor controversy in Newfoundland with some loving the attention and others complaining about the (in their minds, insulting) use of the Newfy accent.  Among the islanders, perceptions surrounding the accent are polarised: some embrace it as a cultural gem and others claim that it perpetuates mainlanders' stereotypes of Newfy jokes and toothless fishermen.  How anyone could conjure up the image of a toothless fisherman while listening to Rex Murphy, Danny Williams, John Crosbie  or any of the countless other Newfoundlanders who made a mark for themselves while talking with a local accent is beyond me.

It's a beautiful and distinctive accent.  It sets Newfoundland apart and makes its natural beauty that much more culturally appealing as an overall tourism experience.  And in a world that is becoming ever more similar and culturally generic by the day, destinations that have something tangibly different to offer shouldn't be shy about promoting their differences.

But when Newfoundland speaks to potential travelers, it makes no reference to the accent and instead uses a voiceover that sounds like middle America.  Watch the ad here.

Ironically, the only tourism organization using the Newfy accent is Fort McMurray, Alberta!  And instead of using it to attract travellers to Newfoundland, it's being used to draw Newfoundlanders to Alberta.  Roughly 35% of the population of Fort McMurray has roots in Newfoundland and the local tourism authority is hoping to attract their extended families and friends for a vacation reunion in Alberta.  Both the campaign website (whereyouat.ca) and radio ads use the Newfy accent and play off the Newfy habit of saying "it's not where you're at, it's where you're to".

Newfoundland isn't the only destination struggling with the balance between cultural authenticity and local politics (it's just the one that's closest to my heart).  Westerners sometimes rail against their cowboy persona.  Hawaiians run into local cultural barriers when they try to dig deeper than "Aloha".  In the quest to attract "high yield" travelers, many make the mistake of presenting only a generic "modern and sophisticated" image when what those very travelers are seeking is something culturally authentic and different than what they can experience at home.

In France, for example, where for decades the "Quebecois" accent was looked down upon, it is now being embraced for what it is: culturally distinct, interesting, and holding a promise of an authentic travel experience for residents of France who have grown tired of the sameness of Parisian French.

Facing local pressure, Australia briefly turned its back on the Aussie stereotype when it launched it's short-lived "life in a different light" campaign.  It was modern and sophisticated and tried to put a stake through Croc Dundee's heart.  And it failed.  They're now back to bikini babes and "where the bloody hell are you?" and, while they're taking some heat for it at home, it's garnered them a lot of attention around the world.

As anyone with experience in tourism marketing will tell you, tourists don't travel to visit the reality of a place – they come to experience the stereotype that exists in their heads.  Stereotypes, like brands, act as a frame of reference to the consumer and help them to simplify and interpret their experience.  The real trick for tourism marketers is to present the stereotype in a positive light, leverage it to convey your point of difference, and make sure the consumer can actually experience it when they arrive.  On all these measures, Newfoundlanders (and many other parts of the world) are sitting on a tremendously underleveraged asset in their tourism marketing campaigns.

Note: We’ve re-published article as part of a series of the most popular pieces from our former blog (BrandCanadaBlog). We can’t promise all the links will work, and some of the references may be a bit dated, but we think the examples and insights are still valid.

 



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