TD Conversations: Lubaina Sheerazi, CEO & Co-founder, BRANDit

The branding strategy expert reveals exactly what makes for successful destination marketing and what goes into creating a brand that has its finger on the pulse of the market.
Lubaina Sheerazi, branding, BRANDit

“To transform a brand into something that makes a difference, the need of the hour is to know the audience well. A golden rule to follow as a brand strategist is to know the consumer’s journey and where the destination’s place is vital.” Image: Courtesy BRANDit.

A broad-based career that spanned merchandising in an export house, understanding the warp and weft of the fashion industry, and then sinking her teeth into travel and tourism in various capacities across Galileo, Air Sahara, Kuoni and Cox & Kings, has given branding expert Lubaina Sheerazi as deep an understanding of what makes people tick as it has a breadth of business vision. Today, as the CEO and Co-founder of BRANDit, a company that excels in destination marketing and creating campaigns for hospitality brands, she is among the foremost in her field.

The turning point came for her more than a decade ago, when she spearheaded growth at Blue Square Consultants, launching new verticals that delivered 360-degree services in destination brand marketing. Her innovative outlook and risk-taking ability have always given Lubaina’s strategies and associations a creative edge over her counterparts, resulting in remarkable outcomes across brands.

Her first success story was branding Oman as an exotic leisure destination in India which involved a shift from its well-established image as a mundane destination for Indian labour. Within a span of four years, Oman recorded a cumulative 30 per cent increase in Indian tourists. Currently, India is the second highest source market for this nation, which represents a growth of over 45 per cent over five years. The team also planned a brand regeneration exercise for Seychelles to shift its image as an expensive far-off destination to a unique and aspirational destination. The island has recorded a growth of 400 per cent in tourist arrivals from India since 2013.

Indians now regard Seychelles as an aspirational but accessible nation, just right for that destination wedding. Image: Courtesy BRANDit.

The countries of Japan and Azerbaijan, and several hospitality brands such as Cinnamon, Club Med and the Jumeirah Group of Hotels are also on her growing list of achievements – with these quite brands firmly positioned in the Indian market as top choices for seasoned travellers seeking new experiences and as wedding destinations and Bollywood shoot locations.

Lubaina’s strength also includes bringing a fresh perspective for existing popular choices – taking Thailand as an example – by repositioning the destination through various PR and marketing activities the team managed to sustain Thailand’s position as the top holiday destination choice amongst the Indians. The Thai tourism board recorded a growth of 20 per cent in 2019, resulting in over 1.9 million Indian arrivals compared to the average growth of approximately 8.7 per cent over the past five years.

“Giving a personality to a destination can be a challenge due to the level of abstraction of it when it comes to a place. For instance, it is easier to spell a narrative of an architectural masterpiece, or a landscape, than tangibly showcase the warm, friendly vibe of a place.” Image: Courtesy BRANDit.

Excerpts from the interview…

Please give us a detailed insight into what exactly goes into creating and building a destination as a brand.

Travel is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the world. People are spending trillions of dollars globally every year travelling. Having a solid marketing strategy is definitely crucial for winning a chunk of that market. From a business point of view, there is a need to keep the momentum for continued growth and development of the industry. This growth results in competition between destination countries, to attract potential visitors and investors. Using branding as an effective tool to craft a story befitting for customers can help compete for visitors. This in turn helps enhance a destination’s image.

Destination branding is a multi-faceted subject; it is an overlap between service, corporate and product branding. Besides, the array of stakeholders, a diverse customer base and product offerings need to be thoroughly considered while crafting strategies. To chart out a flow, identifying the destination’s strongest and most appealing assets in the eyes of its prospective visitors are the first and paramount steps in the process. A story is then crafted using these elements to help a destination cut above its competitors.

As a case study, please share what the perceptions of Oman as a destination were before you started work on its branding, how you went about changing those, and what they are now?

I launched Oman as a leisure destination in India in 2010. The mandate was to bring the country to the forefront by creating general awareness amongst key agents, travel partners and promote the destination to end consumers. However, the destination was practically unknown to travellers in India. Additionally, Europe being the primary source market for inbound arrivals, there was limited focus on India as its travel potential was embryonic.

Our approach was to retain the natural Arabian character of Oman to differentiate it from other man-made and mass tourism destinations in the Gulf. Based on this, a market growth strategy was formulated including positioning, target markets, trade and consumer marketing and a phased implementation plan with budgets and time frames.

The challenge was to make Oman a magnet for leisure travel and differentiate it from other countries in the region. Mutrah Corniche in Muscat, Oman. Image: Shutterstock/Jahidul Hasan.

By charting this course of action, we successfully launched a campaign for Oman with limited budgets that were spent judiciously by expanding presence within India. Approach was segmented to encompass the travel trade fraternity and media while also building strong consumer relationships. Focused on hosting fam trips, webinars to attract the MICE sector. We effectively marketed Oman as one of the most sought-after ‘Destination Wedding’ locations and identified the potential of the ‘celebrations’ segment and successfully facilitated more than 25 Indian weddings in Oman. Another milestone was achieved with the launch of Oman’s global advertising campaign in 2017, which opened doors for positioning Oman as the perfect background for Bollywood movies and songs. In due course, India moved up to become the second highest source market for the Ministry in 2019, with over 435,000 visitors from India.

How do you tailor the branding process to different destinations? What are the parameters that you consider while doing this?

Personalisation is at the heart of our strategy. The rapid growth of travel and tourism has shifted the focus from the actual place towards the consumers or visitors, in the case of destination marketing. To transform a brand into something that makes a difference, the need of the hour is to know the audience well. A golden rule to follow as a brand strategist is to know the consumer’s journey and where the destination’s place is vital. Finding elements that draw them and using those elements to form an integral part of a narrative that not only capture their attention visually and conceptually, but also stays with them. Be where your customer can see you easily!

Drawing experience from over the past decade of my destination representation journey, I can certainly say that the way people travel is constantly changing and for travel brands to tap a significant market share they need to deliver most relevant experiences to the travellers.  

What sort of research about the destination do you need to do before you get started on building its brand values? What are the challenges commonly faced?

The first stage in building a destination as a brand is to establish its core values. Identifying how contemporary or relevant a brand is, how it compares with key competitors and the perspective of visitors are primary steps.

Giving a personality to a destination can be a challenge due to the level of abstraction of it when it comes to a place. For instance, it is easier to spell a narrative of an architectural masterpiece, or a landscape, than tangibly showcase the warm, friendly vibe of a place. Hence, capturing the persona of a destination may not be as easy as say a famous building, or food, or any product or service. While shaping strategies for destinations, it is not just about what is said but how it’s said. Potential visitors infer personality traits from the way destinations communicate.

How savvy are tourism boards about branding and marketing today and how do you align your efforts along with theirs?

In the initial days, destinations around the world used icons, such as nature, beaches, families and couples all having fun. The tone of messaging was generic; icons were overused. In recent years, there has been an acknowledgement that a successful destination brand campaign needs to convey expectations or promise a memorable experience familiar to the region. Besides, it’s not about just a single visit. The traveller needs to see the destination differently during each visit.

I will use Thailand as an example here. Repositioning Thailand as a destination through various PR and marketing activities, we managed to sustain Thailand’s position as the top holiday destination choice amongst Indians. Additionally, we were able to create awareness for the destination and its attractions beyond Bangkok and Pattaya to Koh Tau, Chiang Mai, Rayong and more.

Another element at play is technology; it has introduced a variety of mediums. The importance of measuring results has never been more prominent than now.

Lubaina Sheerazi, branding, BRANDit
Giving fresh perspectives to travellers for every visit to a country is part of Lubaina Shirazi’s job. Right: Thai woman dressed up to perform in the dance drama called Khon. Image: Shutterstock/Punya Family.

What have been the changes in the tourism space in the last decade or so?

The world is changing faster due to the impact of technology and consumers are keeping pace with this change. With the amount of information easily accessible to travellers, they feel more empowered, and able to organise a trip independently. Travellers today also want to steer clear from crowded touristy spots and instead bask in authentic experiences. They do not wish to be insulated inside a cultural bubble. They wish to partake in the local culture, merge within the landscape. Travellers expect a personalised buy that’s based on their taste and past choices. Transformative travel has also set its roots in India. It is no longer about travelling for leisure; individuals now wish to create an impact while they explore the destination.

What are your predictions for upcoming trends in this sector?     

Post the unlock phase, in the second half of 2020, players in the Indian hospitality and tourism industry had to reinvent themselves overnight to stay afloat and meet consumer demands. The looming uncertainty left travellers more thoughtful when planning a vacation. With international travel remaining largely inaccessible to leisure travellers, domestic travel has seen strong growth. On the brighter side, the pandemic introduced a shift in working patterns. With organisations presenting an opportunity to work from home, employees are happy to take video calls from serene locations away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Since this is seen as a long-term trend, another offshoot of WFH, workcations, is fast catching up.

Slow travel is more popular now too. Swapping modes of transport, i.e., rail route over flight, a road journey over rail and so on and so forth. This also means that tourists stay put in a destination for longer as opposed to enjoying ‘photo-stop’ tours. Immersive experiences, interacting with local people and exploring untapped wilderness within the estate or the hills in the backyard, will take precedence.

What is the changing profile of the Indian traveller? How do you keep abreast of fast-changing trends in the world of social media and remain responsive to them?

Travel in India has come a long way from spending your summer holidays with grandparents or other family members. Over the past few years, what has also become passé is travelling abroad for shopping. The Indian traveller now seeks experiences rich in culture. Music gigs, cultural festivals like the Oktoberfest or the Rio Carnival, whale-spotting, wine-tasting tours or voluntourism interests the young Indian traveller. Moreover, Indians are also bent towards experiencing local food.

When it comes to destinations, there is a delightful shift to be observed. Until recently, a large percentage travelled to destinations that were well-connected. Seasoned travellers are now moving from destinations that offer comfort of direct flights and are ready to consider off-beat long-haul destinations that may call for longer journeys.

What are your own qualities that have helped you helm a team that has brought such fantastic results for the tourism boards and hospitality chains that you represent?

In 2010, when I ventured into the business of tourism representation with a team of just two, little did I think I would touch such great heights in a short span of time. Within a brief period of four years and a team of 25 people, I launched verticals that delivered 360-degree services in destination brand marketing. Deploying an innovative outlook to strategies and associations, a creative edge over the run-of-the-mill solutions have helped me draw remarkable outcomes across brands. Furthermore, bringing a fresh perspective to existing popular destinations and lesser-known countries by repositioning the destination through various PR, sales and marketing activities the team has managed to sustain our brands as top choices for Indian travellers. At BRANDit, we are a trusted partner for our clients, helping them navigate the diversity, scale and complexity of India, that remains at the core of the brand. Besides, the insights that I’ve gained over the course of two decades to understand the intricacies of outbound travel, help me craft seamless solutions for numerous tourism boards and hospitality brands.

Lubaina Sheerazi, BRANDit, branding, CEO
“Travel in India has come a long way from spending your summer holidays with grandparents or other family members. Over the past few years, what has also become passé is travelling abroad for shopping. The Indian traveller now seeks experiences rich in culture.” Image: Courtesy BRANDit.

Do you feel that branding as a field has got its due and adequate attention in India or that there is a lot more scope for it?

Tourism brands have understood the importance of branding to market a destination as it can influence decisions and also mould perceptions. International as well as domestic tourism brands have significantly invested in marketing their product or a destination to connect directly with consumers, while also using the tool to create brand characteristics that set itself apart from competition. Brands are looking beyond logos, taglines and brand ambassadors by creating powerful campaigns that are tailormade for their target audience and have a direct impact on consumer decision making. While we are headed in the right direction, there is certainly a scope for improvement.

Are there some dream projects in branding that you would love to get your hands on? Tell us why these appeal to you.

Well, it is hard to pick a few when there are so many regions, destinations and continents yet to be explored. Having said that, I would choose to work with lesser-known destinations, giving us the opportunity to design a spanking new strategy and build the brand from ground zero. Apart from international tourism brands, I see tremendous potential in the untapped domestic tourism market. With the pandemic, Indians have consciously begun to explore our home turf and this segment of travel is set to grow in good time. India is definitely on the bucket list. I would like to apply our expertise in marketing our country in the best possible manner.

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