Branding Island Style. | Bruce Turkel

Picture a tropical island off the coast of the United States:

This island is known for powdery beaches, swaying palm trees and stunning sunsets. Because it’s an island, it’s surrounded by endless blue ocean.

This island has vibrant cities and quaint small towns.

This island has wonderful culinary traditions — lobsters pulled fresh from the ocean are broiled over roaring fires. Whole pigs are roasted with local root vegetables. Tourists and locals alike wash down their meals with potent tropical drinks made from local rum and fresh-picked pineapples, mangos, and coconuts.

This island is known the world over for native-born sports stars, politicians, actors, and musicians.

This island has a unique culture, indigenous music, and its own dances. Although English is widely spoken here, you’ll hear other languages wherever you turn. As such, the island is very exotic yet also resolutely American — mainland US visitors don’t need a passport or a visa. Plus their health care plans, driver’s licenses, and US currency all work just fine.

This island features soaring mountains, picturesque waterfalls, and lush rainforests. There are wonderful hotels here – beautiful resorts and small get-aways built steps away from the ocean. There’s a tradition of American military service, historical museums, and a significant and historical military base.

Finally, if you tire of the main island itself, there are smaller islands nearby that you can visit.

All in all, this island is a wonderful vacation spot and visited and dreamed of by millions of Americans.

Do you know what island I’m talking about? Your answer may be based on your geography, but I’m betting you’re thinking about Hawaii.

I was describing Puerto Rico. Interestingly enough, both islands offer all the amenities I’ve mentioned yet Hawaii has a memorable tourism brand and Puerto Rico is almost invisible. This difference between the two islands’ tourism business is a perfect example of my branding theory that consumers don’t buy what you do; they buy who you are.

Hawaii scores very high on many Americans’ lists of where they’d like to travel while Puerto Rico does not. In fact, in research we did just a few years ago, many respondents who were asked about Puerto Rico’s image mentioned West Side Story – a movie that was released 50 years ago this year. Worse, the story didn’t even take place in Puerto Rico – the Sharks and the Jets rumbled in New York!

This difference in consumer awareness and desire is especially odd when you consider how much further Hawaii is from the mainland US than Puerto Rico. Hawaii is almost six and one-half hours away from Los Angeles, while Puerto Rico is less than two and one-half hours from Miami and three and a half hours from New York. That means that Hawaii is two to three times as far away from 33% of the US population as Puerto Rico is from over half of all mainland Americans!

Needless to say, there are lots of reasons why Hawaii’s image is so much stronger than Puerto Rico’s and many of these reasons are things that Hawaii did right. But one of the biggest culprits is something that Puerto Rico does wrong: The machinations of its political system.

If you have lived on the island, one of your passions would probably be the Commonwealth vs. statehood debate. This issue – the future of Puerto Rico’s American status – is so hotly debated by the populace that it’s called the island’s national sport. More than two thirds (71%) of Puerto Rico’s residents care about it enough to vote.

Unfortunately, this split causes the island’s governorship to change at almost every election, seesawing back and forth every four years between the parties favoring statehood and those supporting commonwealth status. Worse, the subject itself is argued out in the island’s tourism marketing because the prevailing parties use the island’s tourism budgets to fuel the island debate.

So a previous Puerto Rico tourism campaign, The Shining Star of the Caribbean, supported statehood (shining star – America – get it?) while the more recent Explore Beyond the Shore campaign supported commonwealth status (look inward, be our own island).

But here’s the worst part: No potential American tourist cares whether the island becomes a state or not; they’re just looking for a great place to take their families for a warm weather exotic vacation. And Puerto Rico would fill the bill exquisitely if only they could get the message out.

Thanks to American Airlines, there are wonderfully modern airports with great lift. Thanks to newly restored hotels, including the Conrad and the mid-century gem the La Concha, there are beautiful places to stay. Thanks to Puerto Rico’s mix of cultures, tourists can immerse themselves in Spanish but can resort to English whenever they feel the need. And thanks to the island’s unique status, American visitors don’t need a passport to visit.

Before you poo-poo this last point, keep in mind that according to the State Department only 22% of Americans have passports. So for a family of five to visit the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic or Jamaica, they’d have to shell out $575 before they even set foot out of the United States. Yet, when they visit Puerto Rico they can use that money for food and lodging, essentially extending their vacation by a day!

Of course, it’s not too late for Puerto Rico to change its course. The Condado area has recently seen expanded investment and Old San Juan has also been spruced up. And as US travel requirements become more and more restrictive, more and more domestic residents will be looking for exotic alternatives without exotic price tags. But until Puerto Rico’s leadership stops fighting its on-island statehood squabble in the international media, I’m afraid Hawaii will still be the exotic island destination most mainland Americans will dream about.

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