New Mexico Had a Perception Problem

By Jason Riley
Agency: M&C Saatchi
Client: New Mexico Tourism
Category: 2008

What do you think of New Mexico? Not much, I?d guess. Ask your friends, ask a stranger, talk to virtually anyone in the country and, if they have any opinion at all of New Mexico (and they probably don't), they likely think of the State as a big, dry, dusty desert that?s home to a lot of Native Americans and not much else, as a place that?s boring and empty with nothing particularly interesting to see or do. For the New Mexico Tourism Department, this not-so-little human truth presents a big problem: as a vacation destination, New Mexico doesn?t sit on the top of too many folk?s wish list.

To make matters worse, the type of traveler that New Mexico traditionally attracts – retirees, campers, older people who live within driving distance, the Winnebago crowd – don?t tend to spend a lot of money once they get to the State: no flight, no rental car, camping instead of lodging, picnics instead of dining out, fishing holes instead of golf holes. So it's not just the quantity of tourists that are an issue for the State, but also the quality. What good is a tourist if he's not spending money?

Oh, and there's one last bit of bad news, predictably, from the budget department: New Mexico ranks 39th of the 50 states in terms of State tourism spending on advertising. New Mexico's nearest, competing states – Texas, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona – each outspend it by at least 4-to-1. Obviously more money from the legislature would help but, perhaps failing to see the value in tourism advertising, the State wanted proof that it would work before even considering an increase to the Tourism Department's paltry budget.

The brief from the Tourism Department, then, was pretty simple: prove to the legislative bean-counters that advertising can force a new, more lucrative target audience to reevaluate New Mexico as a vacation destination. Our total budget for this project including all media and production would be just $1.5MM. Simple, right?

SO WHO WANTS TO GO TO NEW MEXICO!? Or, more to the point, who do we want to go to New Mexico? Or, perhaps even more to the point, who can we afford to convince to come to New Mexico? All good questions for which I had no answers, at least not to begin with. I?d been a planner for less than a year at this point and this was one of my first \"big\" projects; I didn't know much of anything really.

Well, I knew a few things. For instance, I knew that New Mexico had traditionally concentrated the bulk of its marketing efforts on close-in, regional markets within driving distance of the State, producing advertising that focused primarily on its unique Spanish and Native American culture and heritage. As you can no doubt imagine, 20 years of this sort of activity reaped a population of visitors that were relatively local and old: they arrived by Winnebago, by Gulfstream, by Fleetwood; they wore socks with their sandals; they flocked to Stuckey's for the early-bird special.

There's nothing so wrong with any of that of course, but you'd' think that a state with a natural beauty easily equaling that of Arizona or Colorado or Texas or Utah could attract an audience with interests that stretch beyond the safe horizons of the scenic byway. Where were all the kids? The families? The golfers? The foodies? The adventurers? Where were all the people who would rather do something than just see something?

In short order I decided to focus on a group I would call “Active Travelers”:

  1. They are younger, ages 25-54 versus the traditional 35-64 target
  2. They are families and groups of friends, in addition to couples
  3. They ski, golf, hike, bike, dine, spa… they do things
  4. They have a higher than average annual household income and the disposable income that comes with it

Great. Of course, there are about 150 million people in this country fitting that description. And we have $1 million to spend on media. A penny per person! Perhaps I?d better find a way to narrow things down… significantly.

NARROWING THE TARGET proved to be relatively straightforward. Given the budget, we would be highly unlikely to realize the kind of big changes in perception the State was looking for on even a regional, much less national, basis. I needed a big idea, but a much smaller target if I was going to show any real change. So, as proof of concept for the legislature, I decided to use the budget to attack only two media markets. But what two?

I knew that I wanted to attack virgin territory, somewhere outside the circle of regional markets that had defined the State's tourism efforts to date; I wanted someplace unequivocally \"new\", someplace our target would have to fly from. What?s more, I thought we should try someplace that, from a climate and topography standpoint, seemed much different than New Mexico. With those guidelines in mind I evaluated over 30 different markets – from Tucson to Tampa – by market size, the availability of non-stop flights, median HHI, relative media cost (“bang for the buck” as our client is fond of saying), and syndicated research to indicate the target?s relative propensity to travel domestically for pleasure.

While several markets made the short list, I eventually narrowed my recommendation to Minneapolis/St. Paul and San Diego.

SUCCESS OR FAILURE for this campaign would hinge on mental shifts: a big change in the target?s awareness, and perhaps some rather subtle movements in the target?s perceptions. To eventually know whether we?d succeeded or failed then, I?d need to know the current state of awareness and perception going in. Together with our research partner I developed a quantitative tool to rather precisely measure, along with general awareness, target perceptions of the State across 9 different categories: Distance/Accessibility, Weather/Scenery, Price/Value, Food and Accommodations, Sports Amenities, Sightseeing/Cultural Activities/Heritage, Entertainment, Familiarity, and Atmosphere. There were 81 individual metrics in all. Sample sizes were fairly robust – 600 nationally along with 400 in each in test market – to give the legislature as much assurance of validity as possible.

The pre-wave results weren't pretty. Awareness of New Mexico as a vacation destination was universally poor: only 5.6% nationally, 5.1% in Minneapolis, and 8.7% in San Diego. As initially suspected, brand perceptions consistently indicated that people had a somewhat poorly formed opinion of New Mexico: dry, hot, boring, too far away.

I could now cement our objectives: 1. Double the target's awareness of New Mexico as a vacation destination 2. Change the prevailing perception that New Mexico is an empty desert with nothing to do

SPEND A LITTLE TIME IN THE GREAT STATE OF NEW MEXICO and you'll find some pretty crazy shit: lava caverns, timeless glaciers, frozen waterfalls, plunging gorges, oceans of alabaster sand, art installations made of lightning, and communes of various sizes hosting itinerant casts of artists, radicals, drop-outs, mystics, shamans, gurus, monks, swamis, and hippies of all devotion and description. The cuisine is truly unique and, at its best, no doubt worthy of the title \"cuisine\". New Mexico is the kind of place that encourages and perhaps even demands a brand of iconoclastic individualism found nowhere else in the world.

So let's try talking about something other than the pottery and sunsets, shall we?

THE BRIEF to the creative team was Brutally Simple; I tasked them to force the target to pay attention and reevaluate what they think they know about New Mexico. I told the creative team this:

CONSUMER INSIGHT: Most people think of New Mexico as the sweltering, dusty exile of the senile and incontinent

BRAND INSIGHT: Epic in its diverse beauty and brimming with fierce visionaries and the weird, there's a lot more to New Mexico than you think

POWERFUL TRUTH: There?s something out there

They didn't believe me. The copywriter noted that he'd driven through the State once and that he was pretty sure that New Mexico was, in fact, a dry empty desert with nothing to do. But they didn't know the New Mexico I knew, the mystic place that (being a native Texan) I'd visited many times as a kid. I had to show them. We went to New Mexico. I showed them monumental Ship Rock, the bottomless black of Carlsbad Caverns, the sea of alabaster that is White Sands National Monument, Walter de Maria?s inspired and, dare I say, shocking Lightning Field, the quintessentially New Mexican freakshow that is Roswell. I showed them everything weird and wonderful and one-of-kind that New Mexico has to offer, and they believed.

THE CREATIVE LEAP occurred when we realized that New Mexico was, indeed, already getting a \"higher\" caliber of visitor. The creative team took inspiration from New Mexico?s rich UFO mythology and burgeoning space industry (New Mexico is home to the Virgin Galactic Spaceport), figuring that with all the spacemen visiting New Mexico it must be well known throughout the universe as the place to go for an exciting, unique trip. The resulting creative thought--The Best Place in the Universe--and executions were entirely unlike any tourism advertising our client had ever seen, never mind the target.

Due, no doubt, to the unassailable strategic argument presented in tandem with this creative thought, the client bought the campaign. Three months later – May 2007 – we attacked San Diego and Minneapolis/St. Paul with a fair dose of television supported by outdoor, transit advertising, web banners, coffee sleeves, and public event tactics.

DID WE SUCCEED? You bet we did. Why else would I spend the better part of a week carefully composing the 1,584 preceding words? Post-wave tracking in the two test markets revealed that we increased awareness of New Mexico as a vacation destination dramatically:

– In San Diego by 133%, from 8.7% to 20.3% – In Minneapolis by 176%, from 5.1% to 14.1%

And we realized some significant changes in the prevailing perception that New Mexico is an empty desert with nothing to do:

Increasing perception of the State as: – A place for single travelers and children – A place with interesting cities, museums/galleries, spas, casinos, parks and gardens – A place that holds potential for adventure and excitement

Decreasing some of the “Winnebago Crowd” metrics: – A place for retirees and adult couples – A place for experiencing native culture and customs, small towns, festivals/fairs

So New Mexico became, in the minds of our target, younger and more exciting. Perfect.

With regard to the advertising, potential visitors found the campaign to be unusual (combined 7.7 out of 10, where 5.5 is average) and stand-out from other travel advertising (7.4). No doubt a big part of the \"reason why\" behind the awareness shifts.

Finally, an independent conversion study commissioned by the State in October 2007 revealed that target visitors in San Diego and Minneapolis who were exposed to the advertising campaign proved to be 34.2% more likely to have actually visited than those who hadn?t seen the work. Awesome.

WHAT ABOUT THE MONEY? What about the legislature? Did the Tourism Department finally receive its longed-for budget increase? Yes, is the answer. For the 2008/2009 fiscal year the New Mexico State Legislature saw fit to appropriate an additional – wait for it – $1 million to the Tourism Department?s advertising budget.

Those cheap bastards.