Take Another Look: Azerbaijan’s path to a successful design identity

The tourism industry is relatively new in Azerbaijan – and place branding even more so. That said, Azerbaijan took the world by storm with their 2018 “Take Another Look” campaign which encouraged travellers to see the nation’s wonderful diversity. We reached out to Fidan Aliyeva, Brand & Marketing Communications Director at Azerbaijan’s Tourism Board, to understand the key to their successful design identity and how an organisation that is still forging its path adapted to the new challenges of COVID-19.


Thank you for joining us, Fidan. Before we get into some of the more recent challenges around COVID-19, I just wanted to congratulate you on winning the 2019 City Nation Place Award for Best Use of Design! Could you share what you think the secret of your success is?


Thank you very much, I highly appreciate the opportunity. Since the launch of our global marketing campaign “Take Another Look” in 2018, we have successfully presented a new portrait of Azerbaijan to the world, enhancing its international appeal as a destination. The brand positioning and identity was created to serve as an invitation for travellers to discover hidden gems and curated experiences in Azerbaijan. It has been an honour for the Azerbaijan Tourism Board to win multiple awards for its country brand “Azerbaijan: Take Another Look” and for its stand design at international tourism exhibitions. 

I think the reason why the branding got this much attention was mainly because there was comprehensive research behind it. Before coming up with the design, Azerbaijan’s history, landscapes, culture and even its people were looked into deeply. And we saw that here you can encounter something new every day: it is a country of contradictions, in a good way, so you have to look at it differently. Thus, our brand idea “Take Another Look” invites people to see and consider Azerbaijan from a different perspective. As for our visual identity with the reveal lens providing two contrasting views, it has many possibilities and is always evolving, just like our country which is developing and changing day by day. In my opinion, this resonated with both foreigners and local people as well because it made sense and sparked an interest to find out what has made the country evolve constantly while maintaining its national heritage

 

Your campaign “Take Another Look” challenged potential travellers to ‘look again’ and see past negative preconceptions. How can a clear and engaging design be used to drive a place brand strategy more effectively?


I consider that another reason behind our success with the new branding was the fact that it connected with people. In my opinion, while creating a branding design, it should be kept in mind that this design should clearly communicate what is awaiting the audience here and create a desire to experience the country themselves. It should be established in a way that would shape the perception about the competitive identity and unique sense of place.

Something else I consider very important is consistency. What I mean is that while clear and engaging, the design should also be consistent with the values, experiences, and identity of the country as well as with the other aspects of your destination brand strategy. Consistent design helps remind people of the country more frequently. When we say Azerbaijan, the first thing that comes to mind for most travellers is to ‘take another look’ thanks to our brand and visual identity and that means we are succeeding in showing Azerbaijan in a different light.


That campaign seems to have been quite externally focussed. How are you planning on adapting your strategy to promote more domestic tourism over the next year or so as we recover from COVID-19?

 

We actually started working on our domestic tourism campaign way before the lockdown period began. We have been working on how we can encourage local people too to see our country from a different side and discover what was not known to them before. This campaign to entice local people to be a tourist in their own country is called “Macəra yaxındadır”, which is Azerbaijani for “Adventure is Near”. We are planning to announce what is included in this campaign soon, together with a separate website where our citizens and permanent residents will be able to find various interesting travel offers and experiences in Azerbaijan. We are also continuing to benefit from the power of social media by sharing the stories of successful citizens, local bloggers and influencers to connect with our people even more, while we are continuing with our pre-pandemic content as well in order not to get lost in this strange time.

 

Does a domestic tourism focus impact on your plans to diversify the tourism experience?


Over the last few years, we have seen that demographic indicators, changes in social and cultural values, trends, consumer perceptions have made the tourism sector adapt to new market demands and we have almost always looked at it in terms of international markets. Now the time has come to see it under different conditions, for our own people who live in Azerbaijan but have never really considered their own country as a unique place to discover and experience. Under the new conditions, we have the chance to change this perception in our people’s minds if we implement the right strategy and I think diversified tourism products should definitely be part of it. This is because our new target audience, which is our citizens and residents, consists of quite different characters and social groups, and developing specific tourism products and tours that cater to the needs of local travellers is as important as for international visitors.


With the advantage of hindsight, which areas are you looking to strengthen in your organisation? How are you planning on building on your digital capabilities?

 

I think the communication process, already challenging under normal circumstances, requires more attention especially under the conditions brought by the pandemic.

Like most organisations, we have been focusing on virtual opportunities to keep Azerbaijan’s name at the front, as we don’t have the possibility to do anything live. The Azerbaijan Tourism Board team have already launched several digital projects and are planning to prepare and implement other virtual projects as well to keep the connection with both our international and local audiences. We have re-launched 2 websites – Azerbaijan.travel (B2C) and Tourismboard.az (B2B). We have also organised a specially developed platform – Salambaku.travel – for visitors to go on a virtual tour of all sightseeing locations in Baku: from its UNESCO-listed Old City and Flame Towers to world-class museums, mud volcanoes, etc. Another important step we have taken regarding digital engagement tools was to create Azerbaijan 101, which is an e-learning platform designed to aid the training and development of travel agents and representatives across the global tourism industry. This collection of online training and engagement tools has been introduced for those seeking to gain in-depth knowledge about Azerbaijan’s offerings. Consisting of six modules, the course covers products across health and wellness, gastronomy, wine tours, cultural heritage and more. Upon completion, participants will be certified as an ‘Azerbaijan Travel Expert’. 

We are also putting an emphasis on innovation and technology integration in the tourism industry, with plans to set up a think tank and provide relevant workshops and trainings to our employees via an ATB Innovation Hub. We have also supported a global virtual hackathon, “Hack COVID-19”, to seek technological solutions to fight COVID-19 together with our partners to ease the current social and business challenges faced by all, especially those in the travel and tourism industry.

As I mentioned in previous answers, we consider content creation on social media channels more powerful than ever with most at home browsing their Instagram pages at least. So, until the situation becomes clearer, we are committed to helping our local partners and stakeholders present in the tourism value chain to grow and develop through innovative marketing methods and training opportunities accordingly.


It’s clear you have a focus on data – how do you use this to inform your strategy? What insights have you discovered that will help to shape your actions over the coming years?


A recent study undertaken by GlobalWebIndex shows that in some markets, as many as 50% of consumers have, voluntarily or not, cancelled any upcoming trips. Instead, 70% of us are spending more time on our smartphones, staying in touch with loved ones virtually, or delving into a new TV series. This once more proves that in these uncertain times we should focus on digital and technological solutions to keep Azerbaijan’s flame ablaze. From social media to e-learning platforms, webinars, and virtual tours our brand and marketing team is working tirelessly in this direction.

With the current situation globally, research show that “sustainable” and “responsible” tourism will also be more attractive, and more attention will be paid to these notions in post-pandemic world. Once travel restrictions are lifted, I believe people will be eager to travel to less crowded places and discover hidden gems. In this context, Azerbaijan brings its own approach in line with protection of natural resources, with more than 100 unique languages spoken in the country, with 9 out of 11 climatic zones, and people who have lived here for thousands of years. With this in mind, I think Azerbaijan will be a very attractive place to visit with clean air, experiences in nature, as well as a cultural capital city experience. Having said this, our global and local marketing and brand strategy will be aligned to showcase all these unique features of our destination.

 

Another core element of your strategy was to change policy to better promote tourism development. If you don’t mind sharing, which areas were you focussing on?


The tourism industry is relatively new in Azerbaijan. The main challenge in the first place was to establish a holistic approach among all the relevant stakeholders in order to create quality products throughout the whole tourism value chain. We have been operating based on our 9-pillar tourism strategy, which includes investment in public-private partnerships, education, training, marketing, research, innovation, infrastructure development and more. The synergy and unified vision that we share with our stakeholders, in particular the State Tourism Agency, has helped us provide value at all levels to better develop the tourism industry in Azerbaijan.

To develop Azerbaijan’s tourism offerings, another area we have been focusing on is working closely with our regional offices of the newly established Destination Management Organisations, as well as the wider industry network including hotels, airlines, tour operators, guides, transportation companies, and all other entities to increase the country’s competitiveness on a global platform and ensure that all the experiences meet global standards. Now we are planning to announce the opening of the Tourism Training and Certification Centre, which will focus on training the industry members mentioned, state officials and communities with innovative teaching methods to better respond to the challenges of the tourism industry, raise tourism awareness in the country, and to contribute to the employment rate in the tourism sector. This centre will include not only the partners I just mentioned, but also the farmers, craftsmen and other stakeholders that can have an impact on developing the tourism sector in Azerbaijan.


Thank you for explaining that. Lastly, could you share what you would expect to see in a potential winning entry at the City Nation Place Awards?


Over the last few months of the pandemic, we have seen that the new challenges have made us rethink our actions. Despite this, it has been like a wake-up call for all of us to understand that it is very important to be ready for sudden changes and adapt our strategy in today’s world where uncertainty prevails. I think a smooth process of flexibility and adaptation while keeping the communication going with both local and international stakeholders has been more important than ever and it still continues to be so.

Another moment I would like to see with the nominees is how they prepare for post COVID-19 in terms of sustainable and responsible tourism while avoiding mass tourism as now travellers will be interested in visiting less-crowded places with health and safety measures in place. On our own behalf, I can say that we are taking the necessary steps to make sure that our stakeholders comply with the rules needed to ensure the safety of our citizens and future visitors. One of the measures taken is that we have recently launched an innovative health and safety programme called SAHMAN (Sanitation And Hygiene Methods And Norms). This is designed for local industry players to improve standards of hygiene and sanitation. It will focus on accommodation, F&B and tourist transportation providers – three key aspects of the tourism value chain. PwC will lead the audit and certification process.

Therefore, I would like to see how the nominees are developing their place branding strategies in terms of these two directions. I wish everyone good luck in their respective categories!


Thank you for joining us, Fidan.


Find out more about the City Nation Place Awards categories and how to enter here.


Related reading:

Take another look: Azerbaijan's re-brand journey | Best Use of Design Winner 2019

Hall of fame: 15 of the best place marketing and place branding campaigns

The politics of space, culture, and placemaking in post-COVID place branding

The Chinese traveller in a post-COVID-19 world

The power of collaboration in place branding | Interview with Sylvie Gallier Howard, Philadelphia's Department of Commerce

5 lessons from lockdown: What organisations can learn about collaboration and the route to recovery

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