sealPurdue News

February 2001

Want tourists in your town?
Brand it, and they will come

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – While the advertising concept of branding generally applies to products, a Purdue University professor thinks regional branding is what rural communities need to succeed in making tourism a viable part of their local economies.

Liping A. Cai, a Purdue assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management, defines tourism branding as "a process of building a unique destination image that evokes a specific set of the travelers' thoughts, feelings and associations, which in turn add value to their visiting experience."

He says rural communities that decide to market themselves for tourism often think too small. "Sometimes even a county is too small. Visitors don't think about county boundaries. Regional branding of four to five counties is more effective if they have the same attractions."

Rural towns, according to Cai, need to evaluate the nature of their regions' attractions in terms of "destination mix," which has five components:

  Attractions, both natural and cultural.

  Infrastructure: highways, utilities, sewer.

  Facilities: hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfast establishments.

  Transportation, including taxis and buses.

  Hospitality training, which involves the whole community in knowing what the area's attractions are and how to present them in a positive manner.

"Hospitality training is very important but often ignored," Cai says. "Tourism marketing is a community effort, and having friendly, personable, knowledgeable people is very important. For example, a gas station attendant on the interstate who is trained and part of the system may recommend a restaurant or a local attraction to travelers. This can make all the difference."

Cai says states with agricultural traditions have rural tourism to offer. "Rural tourism in America goes back to the early 1980s when agriculture, mining, timber, energy and agriculture-based manufacturing communities experienced an economic decline," Cai says. Rural tourism is much more advanced in Europe, he says, where it is common for farms to open up to visitors on "rural trips."

Regional tourism planning should also select target markets, according to Cai. What attracts families may be very different from what attracts newlyweds, which, in turn, may be different from what retirees are looking for.

Then, there is globalization to consider. "The United States is the third most-visited country in the world, after Spain and France," Cai says. "Many times, repeat visitors to the United States, having seen New York, Chicago and San Francisco, want to see the 'real' America. When I first introduced the idea of Indiana tourism to my students, they laughed, but we often ignore what is in our back yards."

Cai has done research on rural tourism in New Mexico, which employs regional cooperative branding in the seven-county Old West Country in the southwest part of the state. The paper he wrote on the research won the best paper award at the Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education's national conference in New Orleans in July. Cai's New Mexico branding research focuses on the area's cowboys-and-Indians heritage.

"What this shows is that if a prevailing image of a region already exists, communities should align their images with the regional one," Cai says. "If there is not yet a regional brand image, communities should work together to build one based on their common strengths."

His research also shows that using cooperative branding causes advertising costs to decrease markedly and return on advertising investment to increase significantly. This research is part of a larger effort by Cai and his colleagues at the Purdue Tourism and Hospitality Research Center to measure the economic impact of tourism "as communities become more sophisticated about tourism and recognize the need for good, accurate, credible information," says Alastair M. Morrison, the center's director and professor of marketing and tourism.

"All of this is not to say that an individual community should not promote its own uniqueness," Cai says. "But unless there exists an overpowering organic image of the town in the public consciousness, the community should consider creating a sub-brand based on its uniqueness under an umbrella regional brand."

But Cai cautions that tourism is not an economic quick fix for every town seeking an alternative to agriculture and Old Economy manufacturing businesses.

"Business people like tourists. Residents may not," Cai says. "Tourism is sometimes called a factory without chimneys, but that's not true. There are too many social and environmental issues inherent in a community's developing tourism. The question is how to make tourism sustainable over the long term."

Cai says the answer is to "regionalize, plan and brand."

Sources: Liping A. Cai, (765) 494-4739,

Alastair M. Morrison, (765) 494-7905,

Writer: J. Michael Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;


Cooperative Branding for Rural Destinations
Liping A. Cai

Rural communities are disadvantaged in developing a distinctive image. This research proposed the concept of cooperative branding, positing that individual rural destinations can benefit from a cooperative brand that promotes a regional image. Using the data collected from a rural region with a cooperative brand, the research found a positive relationship between the regional image and those of individual communities in the mental construct of respondents. It was also found that with regard to the same set of image components the respondents held stronger and more favorable perceptions of the region than those of individual communities. Empirical evidence further suggested that cooperative branding yielded greater marketing efficiency for rural destinations to induce inquiries and attract visitation. Keywords: cooperative branding, rural destinations, perceptual mapping.

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