Michele McKenzie moved from Ottawa to Vancouver to head the only federally funded Crown corporation on the West Coast. What’s more, she did it in the middle of a monumental challenge: overseeing an image makeover for Canada.
Giving a country a makeover is a pretty big job, especially when it’s the size of Canada. The Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) has been working on a scheme to ratchet up Canada’s international image for almost five years and started rolling out its glitzy new campaign this spring. The commission’s research showed that Canada’s international branding needed some polish to compete in the increasingly ferocious global tourism market. But the world’s second-largest country has a huge number of tourism vendors and venues, and getting everyone on board with a new marketing angle required a massive consulting effort. McKenzie oversaw the commission’s move from Ottawa to Vancouver in 2005 and has now witnessed the launch of Canada’s new marketing campaign, branded with the slogan “Canada. Keep Exploring.” Why does Canada need this new brand? Our challenge is to take the essence of what is so positive about the image that we have and bring it to life as a more compelling tourism brand. In an increasingly competitive world for tourism destinations, being a beautiful country is not, in itself, a compelling enough reason for people to want to visit you. In recent years, Canada has dropped a couple of spots in tourism performance rankings. Why is that? Canada has had a significant decline from the U.S. market over the last five years. If our performance had stayed stable in the U.S., we would have kept the rank that we had. But there are other factors. New countries and destinations open up, and there’s been pent-up demand for those types of destinations. In the 1970s, the top 15 destinations had 97 per cent of the market share. In 2006, the top 15 destinations have 50 per cent of the market share. Our world has become much more competitive. Canada can’t sit back and rest on its laurels; we have to compete for that business. So our efforts have become very focused on giving our customers compelling reasons to come to Canada right now. Canadians value their international perception. Did this come up in the consultations you’ve done? Of course it did. It’s a challenge for us because every Canadian is an expert in how they think Canada should be portrayed, and they want to participate in the discussion. One of the other big elements of our consultation was asking folks in international markets how they perceive Canada. Everyone agreed that the understanding that the world has of Canada is very positive, but it’s very narrow. What sort of impression do you want international travellers to have in mind when they consider Canada? We really moved away from talking about the country and toward talking about the experiences, because people will buy experiences. One of the challenges we have in Canada is that our experiences are so incredibly diverse. That’s a good thing, but we need to make sure that we’re adding all of that depth to that very positive, but thin, image of what Canada can offer. Have you found any perceptions of Canada that aren’t particularly good for the tourism industry? The fact that people don’t know what they could do here is the biggest barrier that we need to overcome. We did a huge piece of research last year in the U.S. market and some of their perceptions are very positive and some of them are negative. We found that marketing can influence many of those negative images. The wine industry in B.C. is an example. If their image is that Canada’s a cold country, the idea that there’s a wine region in B.C. intrigues them. So we can turn around their image of Canada. What kind of visual images are really working for this new branding? We’ve brought people having experiences in Canada right up front and centre. We’re no longer just using the images of the beautiful vistas. As beautiful as they are, people need to be able to put themselves in those pictures. We found that with many of our images, especially our images of mountains that had no roads in them and no people in them, people had no idea how they’d get there and if they got there, no idea how they’d get home. If they’re not used to that, it becomes a very interesting, beautiful picture, but perhaps a scary idea of what it would be like to visit. The commission moved from Ottawa to Vancouver a couple of years ago. How has the new location influenced the work you’re doing? From a strategic point of view it did not change. Our goal with the move was to make it seamless to our partners. The one element that changed most dramatically was our complement of staff. Relatively few people made the move from Ottawa to Vancouver, so we made a significant restaffing. We thought we’d lose momentum, but the new staff were so incredibly keen that they came up that learning curve way quicker than we’d anticipated, and we didn’t really skip a beat. It certainly is tumultuous, but it’s filled with opportunity. For me, it was probably the biggest leadership opportunity I’ll have in my career. Of course, we lost great talent that had been working at the CTC and we gained great talent. You’ve spent most of your life on the East Coast and moved clear across the country. How’s that been for you? I came from Nova Scotia to Ottawa in 2004 and then moved from Ottawa to B.C. in 2005. It was right across the country in two years. The fact that I can fly to Shanghai faster than I can fly to see my relatives in New-foundland is really very interesting as well. If you come from the coast, it’s very nice to be back on a coast because being near water becomes a very big part of who you are.