Mexico Leans on PR to Lure Back Tourists

Newly Minted CMO Gerardo Llanes Combats Negative Press, Consumer Perceptions

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Mexico's new branding campaign promotes atypical attractions, like underground rivers, swimming with whale sharks and camping.
Mexico's new branding campaign promotes atypical attractions, like underground rivers, swimming with whale sharks and camping.

Mexico is undoubtedly a challenged brand. Drug cartels, violence, murder and kidnappings have been grabbing headlines, thus deterring tourists who typically flock to the country for its beaches, Mayan archaeological sites and tequila.

To turn things around, the Mexico Tourism Board is launching an offensive on two fronts: one, a positive branding campaign carrying the tagline, "The Place You Thought You Knew," and the other, a heightened PR effort to dismantle drug- and violence-related U.S. press. While the first effort won't touch the second with a 10-foot pole, both represent a shift in marketing investment to favor PR and digital, as well as an attempt to make people feel better about traveling to Mexico.

At the helm of the radical shift in marketing dollars is CMO Gerardo Llanes, who took on the role just four months ago. He plans to reallocate up to one-quarter of the Mexico Tourism Board's $100 million global marketing budget, much of which has been spent on traditional media buys in the past, to public relations and digital efforts. His approach will see PR spending double to $21 million, while traditional media spending will shrink from $21 million in 2010 to an expected $6 million next year.

"We believe word-of -mouth is getting to be a better tool for us right now, especially now that we're seeing some not-so-positive things in the media, especially in the U.S.," Mr. Llanes said.

Mr. Llanes has experience on both the agency and marketer sides of the business -- he worked on the launch of Diet Coke in Mexico -- but when the head marketing role at the Mexico Tourism Board opened up, he jumped at it. There's nothing quite as appealingly challenging as Mexico, he said. "Managing a country brand is big," Mr. Llanes said. "I knew what was being said and done outside of the country."

Much of the "not-so-positive" media has appeared in mainstream publications, with claims that drug cartel-related violence and murder, typically contained to U.S.-Mexico border areas, has seeped into tourism destinations. Working with Ogilvy PR, Mr. Llanes has developed a public-

Gerardo Llanes
Gerardo Llanes

"We're reaching out to leader media outlets like Bloomberg, Newsweek and CNN to help us tell our side of the story and get the facts straight," Mr. Llanes said. "We're not denying that there are some areas of the country that have problems, but we're saying if you hear about something bad in Chicago, it wouldn't stop you from going to Los Angeles."

Despite reports of murder in tourist regions like Acapulco, Mr. Llanes is pushing the message that the crime index of 14 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in the entire country isn't much different from that of a city like New York or Houston, which he says have indexes of 16 and 14, respectively.

Still, thanks to press reports, not to mention an April travel warning from the U.S. Department of State, Mr. Llanes is battling a tourism perception problem despite the organization's reports of increases in visitor, hotel development and occupancy rates. (It is worth stating, however, that those increases are year-over-year and compared to post-H1N1 stats.) The Wall Street Journal recently reported that tour operators have experienced declines in business and a number of cruise lines have canceled service to Acapulco. That's where the Mexico Tourism Board's new branding campaign, "The Place You Thought You Knew," comes into play.

That campaign, Mr. Llanes' first branding project, which will likely cost more than $1 million, aims to build awareness, via digital and social media platforms, of "the story people don't know about Mexico." The message pushes activities and attractions beyond Cancun and Senor Frog's, promoting underground rivers, swimming with whale sharks and camping, for example.

While the organization likely will build online promotional programs down the road, it's working on solidifying its presence online via Twitter, new YouTube channels, a handful of new Facebook pages and targeted blogger and community engagement.

"There are a lot of Americans living in Mexico and travelling to Mexico," Mr. Llanes said of the group's new emphasis on social media. "It's better that an American talks to an American than having the Mexican government talk to an American."

"I'm trying to look at how do we create strategy to be more applicable in markets, more aggressive and more active in areas where traditionally we haven't been, like digital and social media, mainly because of the moment we're going through: the bad press and the development of social media," Mr. Llanes added. "We old guys are still in the TV and radio world. It's not like that anymore."

The organization's agency roster includes Havas Media and Vantage Strategies for online media, ZenithOptimedia for traditional media, Publicis for creative, Ogilvy PR for PR and social media and Planet Hollywood for celebrity PR.

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