Urban Destination Marketing: Ducks or Rabbits?

In February we are publishing John Heeley’s new book Urban Destination Marketing in Contemporary Europe. In this post, he explains how this book outlines the basis for a paradigm change in destination marketing.

Urban Destination Marketing in Contemporary EuropeI studied the sociology of knowledge as a part of my undergraduate degree at the University of York (1969-72), and it ‘opened my eyes’. In particular, I was greatly influenced by an elegantly written essay on the philosophy of science written by one Thomas S. Kuhn. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn showed that the conceptual schema advanced by academics and practitioners so as to describe and otherwise explain aspects of the natural or social world were subject to periodic change. Change the paradigm and a new version of ‘the facts’ replaces the former one; in this way – to paraphrase Kuhn – what were ducks in the scientists’ minds in the old paradigm became rabbits in the new. So what mattered were not the facts per se, but how academic and practitioner communities interpreted them through the medium of the conceptual schemas Kuhn dubbed as paradigms.

Over forty years later (Christmas 2013) I found myself re-reading Kuhn’s seminal text, after which I used the notion of paradigm as the organising principle for my new book Urban Destination Marketing in Contemporary Europe: Uniting Theory and Practice. 21 in-depth interviews with destination marketing practitioners form the empirical heart of this book; in their own words (and warts and all), CEOs and senior executives of destination marketing organisations (DMOs) portray how on a daily basis they go about their marketing and visitor servicing operations. The DMO world depicted by the practitioners in the book is far removed from the one presented in the academic texts. The current ‘4 Ps paradigm’ has DMOs taking a differentiated product to market based on unique selling points (USPs) or competitive advantage, with the consumers and clients thus targeted responding more or less automaton-like to that marketing, and with the destinations reaping in the rewards in terms of enhanced business turnover, employment and other gains.

An example of a DMO advert.  By kind permission of Gothenburg & Co.
An example of a DMO advert. By kind permission of Gothenburg & Co.

As such, the ‘4 Ps’ paradigm is as simplistic as it is deterministic, offering a deeply flawed ‘what could be the case but isn’t’ portrayal of destination marketing. In all but a handful of cases, the ‘marketing the difference’ approaches so emblematic of the contemporary paradigm give way in practice to an undifferentiated and ultimately bland DMO ‘marketing of everything’. Moreover, in practice, destination marketing influences lie at the margins of consumer choice, and the resultant conversion levels are as minimal as the resultant turnover and employment gains are negligible.

In arguing along these lines in the new book, I am aware that I may well incur the wrath of academics and practitioners alike. Debunking an existing paradigm and having the temerity to outline a ‘what is the case’ replacement grounded in empirical evidence will doubtless invite feelings (maybe even charges) of arrogance, myopia or even deceit. I should add that authoring Urban Destination Marketing in Contemporary Europe has been difficult, inasmuch as I have had to belatedly own up to having ‘got things wrong’ during my long practitioner years, and to having consigned to the long grass puzzles, contradictions and anomalies associated with the ‘4 Ps paradigm’ which I ought really to have tackled head on.

On a purely personal level, however, I am satisfied that in writing the book I have at long last begun honestly and realistically to make sense of my long career as a destination marketer. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not others will see ‘marketing of everything’ where previously they saw ‘marketing the difference’. As so ably demonstrated by Kuhn, I take heart from the facts that ducks from time to time do morph into rabbits!

Inside City TourismIf you would like further information on the book please see our website. You might also like John’s previous book Inside City Tourism.

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