Vietnam tourism yet to find the right charm

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While Vietnam is struggling with its tourism logos and slogans, a leading global expert in the field says they are not that important

More than one month has passed since Vietnam announced a new official tourism slogan and logo, but local travel companies complain that the decision was made too hastily and they have no way of really using the new tools.

Last December the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) announced that between 2012 and 2015 the country's tourism will be promoted with the slogan "Vietnam Timeless Charm" and the logo of a lotus in full blossom.

However, most of local travel agencies are still using the old slogan "Vietnam The Hidden Charm," which has been in use since 2006.

A representative of a Ho Chi Minh City-based travel company said the new slogan and logo were announced hastily at the end of 2011, while most travel companies had already printed all their promotional material and business plans for this year and could not change them on such short notice.

Tran Van Long, director general of Viet Travel Media, said in an interview with news website VnExpress that VNAT had yet to issue any directions or plans for promoting the new brand, and travel agencies thus could not plan accordingly.

Doan Thanh Tra, a representative of Saigontourist, also told the newswire last week that the company was still waiting for an action plan from VNAT, but so far no branding events had been launched.

"Even many Vietnamese people have no idea about the brand," Tra said.

VNAT needs to be the initiator of effective branding plans and travel agencies will follow suit, she added.

From "˜hidden' to "˜timeless'

VNAT came up with the new logo and slogan as the ones selected by a nationwide contest were rejected by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism last April. The ministry made the move after its survey found that only 50-60 percent of experts, managers and journalists were in favor of the winning entry a star-shaped logo and the slogan "Vietnam A Different Orient."

Even so, the latest brand is still being criticized by artists and linguists, while industry insiders say it is not impressive.

Associate Professor Dang Ngoc Le from the University of Education's Vietnamese Language Department said that the slogan "Timeless Charm" is too vague and abstract, and so was the old one "Hidden Charm."

Such slogans make it hard to market the country's image, considering that tourism means seeing and discovering particular things, Le said.

""˜Timeless Charm' is something inexplicable and usually used in arts," he said.

Meanwhile, Luu Duc Ke, director of Hanoitourist Travel Company, told VnExpress: "When I first saw the logo, I could not understand its meaning until I was given an explanation."

According to VNAT, the new lotus has five petals in five different colors representing the country's tourism products sea, ecology, culture, adventure, and Vietnamese hospitality.

Ke said Hanoitourist's promotional publications that use the logo will have to add the explanation to clarify its meaning. He also said travel agencies are expecting a new and better logo.

Artist Tran Thuy Linh, who is based in HCMC and has exhibited in the US and Korea, said there was no need for the new logo's lotus to carry five colors which "forcefully" represented Vietnam's tourism products.

"International tourists do not interpret purple as a color representing adventure tourism," she said.

Tra from Saigontourist found it troublesome to use the logo's five colors correctly, saying it should have had two or three colors only.

Long of Viet Travel Media also said the slogan is not only too vague for promotional programs, but also makes it hard for foreign tourists to imagine what Vietnam is like.

While other regional countries have mastered branding strategies, Vietnam's tourism is still a newbie, Long said.

For example, the Thai slogan "Amazing Thailand" has been used for many years, and every years a few details in the logo are adjusted in accordance with a new focus. He said this strategy has gained the long-term trust from tourists.

Where is the charm?

In an interview with Vietweek, when asked about Vietnam's tourism brands, Simon Anholt, a global marketing expert who coined the term "nation branding," said he did not really care much for any slogans.

"I think they are so unimportant and generally say so little," said Anholt, who founded the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index a system for measuring and managing national reputation around the world.

Anholt is also an independent policy advisor who has worked with more than 50 countries over the past 20 years to help enhance their national identity and reputation as well as tourism and public diplomacy.

He said that when people watch a TV commercial or look at a press advertisement, the slogan at the bottom of the page or at the end of the film is something most don't even notice.

"Nobody really cares about these things or pays any attention to them."

Even when a slogan is used, "consistency" and "stability" are the most important parts of it, he said, suggesting that the slogan should be used for a long time so people get used to it.

"It's much better to have a weak slogan and stick to it for 20 years, than to have an amazing new slogan every year."

Asked if slogans and logos are really useful to attract tourists, Anholt said while "branding" is used in many different ways with various meanings, it has only minor value in tourism promotion if "branding" is defined as designing logos.

However, if "branding" means trying to improve people's perceptions of the destination, then it's important, he said.

But, then "branding" is not only about slogans and logos.

"There is absolutely no evidence that national image can be influenced by marketing and communications: countries are judged by what they are really like and what they really do, not by the things they say about themselves," Anholt said.

Vietnam recorded 630,000 international arrivals in January, up 24.8 percent year-on-year and 6.2 percent from the month before.

Last year six million foreign tourists came to Vietnam, an increase of 19.1 percent from 2010, according to the General Statistics Office.

The country aims to earn between US$10 billion and $11 billion in tourism revenue with 7 million to 7.5 million foreign tourists in 2015.

ACCEPT NEW SLOGAN AND LOGO, OFFICIAL SAYS

In response to the mixed reception to the new tourism logo and slogan, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism Deputy Director Nguyen Manh Cuong said all slogans are meant to allow people to freely interpret them, and tourism slogans are no exception.

Speaking to VnExpress, he said: "We need to accept that it's hard to understand first but then we will get used to it. It's normal that people have different ideas about something new and unfamiliar."

Even the old logo, a lotus bud, used along with the slogan "The Hidden Charm" since 2006, still draws various shades of opinions, the newswire quoted him as saying last week.

But he stressed that since the logo and slogan are national brands, local businesses had to use them.

It means they had to change all of their promotional materials before a certain time, he said.

Those travel companies that refuse to use the brand would be kept out of VNAT's programs, he warned, adding that his agency would send directions on how to use the logo this week.

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