Seeing Azerbaijan From a New Point of View – Destination Branding by Landor

Destination branding is a daunting task for anyone trying to improve or change a country’s attractiveness, reputation or experiences. Landor recently went to the help of Azerbaijan, a country stiffled with stereotypes and cliché images. Idil Yenisehirli, the director of Landor’s Istanbul office, tells us how the Brand Azerbaijan project went, what the team learned during the process, the successes and challenges.

What was the situation of Azerbaijan when you started the destination branding project?

Generally, outside of the local region, Azerbaijan was not regarded as a modern destination. It was widely known for its oil production, carpet making tradition and for being a recent host of the Eurovision Song Contest. But there is so much more to see. Ancient temples rubbing shoulders with glittering skyscrapers, bustling markets, pristine ski slopes and bubbling mud volcanoes.

To unlock its commercial potential, the country needed a brand that would attract people for both leisure and business tourism. Landor was tasked to translate this vision into a comprehensive brand strategy to help market Azerbaijan’s appeal.

We assembled a cross-regional team and used Landor’s proprietary sprint process to conduct an in-depth exploration of the country for 21 days, allowing us to immerse ourselves in Azerbaijan’s rich culture. Here we discovered a place that defied our expectations and forced us to consider Azerbaijan in a new light.

The most significant barrier that Azerbaijan faced was its invisibility. We were tasked with changing people’s perception; but in many cases there was no perception to begin with.

We had two target audiences to cater for; Westerners looking to explore and discover an unknown Azerbaijan with no presumptions – and Russians, for many of whom Azerbaijan has meaning but also preconceptions, partially due to its history as part of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan also suffered from a lack of differentiation from its neighbouring countries, with little clarity as to what made Azerbaijan unique.

We soon uncovered that Azerbaijan had much to tell the world about – rich geological wonders featuring nine climatic zones, the diverse capital city of Baku, a deep historical legacy, its once strategic position on the ancient Silk Road, Caucasian cuisine, contemporary culture and entertainment, beach, and retail destinations.

For decades, Azerbaijan had been relying primarily on oil for its economy, as reflected in its previous country brand positioning. This needed to change, to help bring Azerbaijan into the tourism race.

The Azerbaijan Tourism Board had the ambitious aim to become the top destination brand in the region by increasing their awareness as one of the cradles of civilisation; attracting a flow of 10 million tourists annually; and providing unique experiences and long-lasting memories.

As a result, the aim was for the Azerbaijan tourism brand to become the no.2 industry revenue stream in the country. We had to re-position the destination to identify Azerbaijan’s differentiation, whilst appealing to both main target groups.

Landor created a team with specific skill sets, from its London, Istanbul, Dubai and Moscow offices, to put their boots on the ground in the country. We interviewed senior management, local tourism offices and tourists who were visiting Azerbaijan at that time, whilst travelling the towns, villages, rural areas and key attractions. We sampled what it would be like to live like locals and experienced the county from a new perspective.

This deep immersion was crucial to really ‘feel’ the place, understand the challenges and identify the real opportunities. On top of this we conducted two comprehensive workshops involving government and corporate stakeholders.

Which stakeholders did you work with, and how did you involve them?

The government created a new official organisation, called the Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB), to execute the new tourism brand, and were integral to the overall success of the project. The Azerbaijan Tourism Board consisted of key figures whose responsibility was to manage the project from start to finish and they’ve continued in their roles post brand launch. This meant that there were none of the typical issues surrounding mandate and budgets.

Our engagement with local stakeholders included government executive management, local tourism officers, museums, hoteliers, restaurants and influential bloggers. We worked with the Azerbaijan Tourism Board during the strategy phases, through a series of workshops, to unlock what makes the Azerbaijani people unique.

Did your project include placemaking, such as new buildings or developments?

No. Placemaking, architecture or space planning was not part of our scope.

How were you active on social media?

We focused on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Results:

  • 120+ articles and 3+ million reach around the world within the first 6 months of launch
  • 486,000 views on the re-brand awareness launch video
  • 374 direct mentions on social media
  • 21 press interviews

Which would you consider your proudest achievement?

We are most proud of the brand idea, ‘Take another look’, which is an invitation to consider Azerbaijan from a new point of view. The ‘reveal lens’ enables two contrasting views of the country to come together, to reveal an intriguing and surprising new perspective of the place and its culture. It is a device with endless possibilities, always evolving, like this constantly changing country.

The identity resonated immediately with the Azerbaijani people, as a solution that is unique and appropriate to the country by providing a historical sense of Azerbaijan’s rich textures and cultures.

Consequently, Azerbaijan became one of the fastest growing destinations for vacationers in India and Russia.

Why do you think the Azerbaijan destination branding project was successful?

Our co-strategy with the Azerbaijani team involved four Landor offices from its target markets (London, Istanbul, Dubai and Moscow). It was this cross-collaboration of ideas and multicultural input and output that meant we could escape the usual clichés of tourism brands.

As part of the strategy we decided that the brand would be built up by many small stories of the people, craftsman, climate, and even the people running the oil industry. By placing these twenty second stories through social media, their lives together would form an authentic image of Azerbaijan. This low-key approach was successful because it was honest, and these human stories built a groundswell of interest to ‘Take another look’ at Azerbaijan.

Our slogan of ‘Take another look’ was an effective proposition because it did not alienate either of our target audiences. Azerbaijan (as a beloved holiday destination and former member of the USSR) held a nostalgic place in the hearts of Russian tourists, but it also needed to appeal to a more typical intrepid traveller with its nine climates and high adventure. We needed to find our territory between these two audiences, and while ‘Take another look’ was one proposition, it could work in two very different ways.

What can other practitioners can learn from your experience?

At the beginning of the design phase it is important to have all the designers working together and around the same table, to ensure alignment. This meant that when we returned to our respective offices, we had a clear understanding of the task at hand.

Engaging with Azerbaijanis who are going to live the brand afterwards should not be overlooked. It will not be us who will be delivering the brand to the country’s visitors; it’s going to be the person running the deli, or serving at the restaurants, or providing transport.

Seeing the country from a more granular level, we were able to moderate our strategy in the face of political tensions and conflict of interests. By presenting a solution that everyone fits in to, allows for a much smoother process. You cannot create this from a distance – or just have three workshops from afar – you need to be on the ground.

What is the most original component of your project?

Engaging the local people. We worked with the Azerbaijani people throughout the entire process, including the creative process.

There was a public competition on Instagram to create the best ‘reveal lens’. The brand design consisted of combining two different country assets into one composition, so we invited the people of Azerbaijan to find imagery that could be combined in this way and that would help to promote Azerbaijan. The competition captured the local imagination and they used it to showcase the creativity, beauty and humour of the nation. We received some interesting combinations, which later inspired some brand communication and messaging.

By inviting the country to participate in exploring the national brand, it helped to facilitate the adoption and perception of the new tourism Azerbaijan.

Our multi-national team set us apart from other branding projects we had done. On the ground we had a wonderfully diverse team from different backgrounds, countries and age groups. This meant we could gain varied perspectives on the sites we were seeing; from the Russian travellers who had a deeper connection to Azerbaijan, to the younger, more adventure-seeking traveller demographic.

If you had the opportunity to start all over again, what would you do differently?

The Sprint branding process was tough but a necessity. We do not think we would have been able to organise eight people in the field over several days and make the deadline without it. However, in hindsight, we could have stretched it by a day or so.

Perhaps less time in workshops and more time in the field.

We would have also loved to work on an internal campaign to bring the whole tourism community together under the umbrella of ‘Take another look’. To unite them behind the same ideology would have instilled a sense of pride in this community that we know is so valuable in creating a lasting legacy of Azerbaijan.

In hindsight, which aspect of the Azerbaijan place branding project did you find the most challenging?

Given the tight deadlines, the team felt the pressure of coming up with something new in such a short space of time. During the Sprint process you cannot just have a single designer, as we are moving at the speed of lightening.

We soon learnt the intricacies of juggling teams in multiple counties and different time zones. When it was early evening in one office and people were still up and running, it was near midnight in another office and the team were dead on their feet. However, given the results and impact of the work, this intensity obviously worked to our advantage.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

We had two important realisations during our project:

Firstly, local languages matter even more in a globalised world, because it influences the way a nation thinks. Therefore, knowing the language really helps to understand the culture. Language was also crucial from a practical point of view, as some of our main stakeholders were not fluent English speakers and could only fully express their opinion in their mother tongue.

By having members of our team who could speak the local languages (Russian and Turkish) we could delve in additional layers of information and build even stronger relationships with the client team.

Secondly, while we know things are not always as they seem from the outset, we were staggered by how much our perception of Azerbaijan has changed during our visit. As well as seeing its famous sites and touristic destinations, we experienced its rural areas and diverse nature, spoke with locals and sampled their cuisine and humble hospitality.

We were also regaled with tales of Azerbaijan’s rich history and proud traditions. It was with this insight that we were able to better understand the soul of the country. By removing any clichés, it was easier to reveal the essence of Azerbaijan and package this into the brand positioning more authentically.

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