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Potatoes and sand dunes and Anne… oh PEI!

by Julia Kirkey

During the Prince Edward Island budget address last April, the provincial Liberals pleasantly announced that despite the global economic downturn, the Island had managed to keep its head above water. PEI was one of the few provinces that showed signs of growth (albeit modest), maintaining a high level of activity and investment.

At that point, the provincial government set out a three-year game plan for how they were going to keep the trend going with improvements in private sector growth, education and health care with the ultimate goal of balancing the budget by 2015. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though. There was still not-so-good news that came out of the budget address including the announcement that tourism, one of the Island’s biggest industries, was slipping.[i]

Sales figures from the provincial treasury showed a 5.6 per cent decline in accommodations sold in 2011, although the numbers for food and beverage retailers and at gift shops were slightly up compared to the previous year. Despite the dip, the numbers still show an improvement compared to those from 2000-2005.[ii] Tourism had been on a strong run in PEI since 2006, coinciding with the then-Conservative government’s decision to hire a marketing firm to rebrand the province. That’s when “The Gentle Island” was born.

The brains behind the campaign belonged to Grey Canada, a Toronto-based, full-service marketing agency whose clients currently include the Government of Ontario, Municipality of Wood Buffalo (aka Fort McMurray), Dairy Queen, Warner Brothers, Procter and Gamble and the Special Olympics (to name just a few)[iii]. Grey, along with Tourism PEI, conducted extensive market research that determined that “the foundation of (the Island’s) brand should be the perception that PEI is a kinder, gentler place, building on (the Island’s) visually stirring landscape and people.”

This campaign received significant buy-in from the public, as businesses were brought on board and encouraged to make the campaign part of their own advertising and promotions. The campaign started paying off almost immediately and the years following the launch of the new brand were strong within the tourism sector. In 2010 however, a few years after the Liberals took the helm, the provincial government broke ties with Grey Canada[iv], opting to steer away from a full-service agency which would create a campaign from start to finish and towards a system that would allow subcontractors to do individual pieces of a campaign, allowing for more “flexibility”.

That flexibility is now being called into play. Keeping in mind that 2011’s tourism figures were still stronger than the first five years of the last decade, the provincial government has put out a request for proposals, looking to spend $100,000 on a “brand review” with plans to overhaul the tourism campaign. “The Gentle Island” doesn’t seem to be cutting it anymore and they would like to see a brand that better captures the “essence of the Island”. They don’t just want tourists, they want to promote immigration, market the potato and oyster industries and remind Islanders of what they already have.

Having a brand that goes beyond tourism isn’t a bad idea and perhaps the government is on the right track when considering a new one, but is now the time?

The current positioning is obviously working to attract the golf-playing, beach-bumming, Green Gables-loving, lobster-eating tourist (the “target market”). Grey Canada won multiple awards for the “Gentle Island” campaign including the 2009 silver Adrian Award from the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International[v]. The campaign has been credited for a growth in tourism revenue by as much as six per cent in the first two years and even got kudos for helping the Island grow the tourism sector in 2008, a year that otherwise holds the title for the worst on record for the Canadian tourism industry.

Why spend money to fix something that isn’t broken? Islanders know why they live on PEI, they are the essence of the Island, the “gentle” folk that tourists rave about once they’ve left. Studies done by the University of Prince Edward Island showed that both visitors and non-visitors already associate the province with potatoes, lobster and mussels with oysters still coming in the top five.[vi]

Pre-budget discussions for the last fiscal year detailed that Islanders want the government to focus on reducing the deficit, better balancing the effort to increase revenues while decreasing spending, eliminating wasteful spending and reducing private sector red tape.[vii] A new marketing campaign isn’t going to contribute to those things, but the money that will be spent on it (the $100,000 already budgeted is only for a review and not for the creation and implementation of a new campaign) could certainly help.

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