How to Unlock Your Destination's DNA

Frances RoyMarch 1, 2018

Frank Cuypers at Destination Think! coined the term Place DNA, and here at Frances Roy we are committed to show you how to implement this for your unique destination. With all the vacation destinations in the world, it can be overwhelming to find your own competitive edge. However, finding your destination's unique qualities, or destination DNA, can propel your place into a top destination. Below are tips on how to embrace and implement your destination DNA.

Destination DNA is all about building your brand from the inside out. Many destination marketers make the mistake of establishing a destination’s brand through marketing. However, a strong place brand begins with its local residents. You must root your brand in the consistent cultural identity established by local residents. This is your destination DNA - what make your place unique. This is established through architecture, history, local culture/cuisine, environment, climate, etc. Uncover what makes your destination set apart from other regions and this will resonate with customers more than flashy, and sometimes generic, campaigns. Your residents should be able to strongly resonate and understand the answer to the question, “What is my city’s place in the world?”

For example, Eindhoven, Netherlands, doesn’t try to compete with powerhouses like Amsterdam or Antwerp. Instead, they embrace their unique way of communicating by showcasing their innovative technology. This place embraces the behavior/culture of local residents to create an authentic extension of the destination to visitors. Cleveland, Ohio, embraces its individuality by creating the campaign slogan, “Cleveland has never followed anybody else’s rules, we made our own.” Their stubborness is an extension of local residents and resonates well with visitors as it showcases their individuality.


“There can be no city branding without citizens and no destination branding without residents.” - Frank Cuypers, Destination Think!s Strategic Consultant.


A place is much more than a product for consumers, it meets the needs of visitors, residents, businesses, and brainpower. In addition to these needs, a place needs an abstract value that is distinguishable. For example, Paris is coined as the “City of Light” which gives the city a sense of wonder/magic. Destination DNA can be broken into three categories: the core identity, the place product, and the place brand. The core identity reveals the place identity and attributes that define it/make it attractive. The place product indicates how people experience your place and the quality of life residents and visitors experience. The place brand is the reputation/value that is communicated to the world that sets it apart from its competition. Overall, understanding the concept of destination DNA is what will give your destination a competitive edge, not flashy marketing.

Destination DNA can be determined by analyzing the elements of the DNA code. This unique acronym is derived from an organism’s DNA code to help determine your destination DNA

  • G for Geography - environment, history, location, landscape, etc.
  • T for Technology - human impact, heritage, architecture, infrastructure
  • A for Authenticity - traditions, attitudes, culture, local attitude
  • C for Continuity - not re-branding, but embracing the long standing culture of a place

Understanding Destination DNA will create better visitor stories. A great way to do this is to lead by promotion. In other words, promotions create the right conditions for meaningful experiences (and thus stories) by facilitating cooperation. A great example of destinations that inspired creativity from their unique destination DNA is the city of Ostend, Belgium. In the 1980s Marvin Gaye lived in this city to temporarily escape from his problems in America. He became one of their most famous residents and recently, the DMO created a Midnight Love Tour which highlights where his inspiration for his comeback and smash hit “Sexual Healing” came from.

Communication is also a vital step in marketing destination DNA. Marketing is now based on consumer engagement and is centered around personal engagement. This is where the importance of reviews comes in. It is important to engage visitors to review your destination on Facebook, Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc. to facilitate positive reviews. However, a response to a negative review is even more important. Be sure to respond with a sincere apology and a wish of goodwill. A good response to a negative review shows future visitors how important customer service is to your DMO. It is also vital to make word-of-mouth referrals a strategic priority, like VISIT FLORIDA does. In order for a DMO to succeed, it must take time to listen/speak to its residents and visitors in a personal manner. Since visitors  are attracted to places that respect their residents, make them an ambassadors for the destination. All successful DMOs encourage locals to take pride in their destination. For example, I Love New York, I amsterdam, and cOPENhagen all encourage local pride.

Additional case studies that lead by example.

  • Portland, Oregon won the 2016 U.S. Tourism Quality Index and therefore established itself as America’s Best Quality Tourism Destination. The diversity of offerings, ranging from outdoor recreation and family attractions to culinary adventures and cultural experiences translate to the city truly having something to offer every visitor.” -  Jeff Miller, president & CEO of Travel Portland. In the DMOs 2013-2015 Strategic Marketing Plan, they highlighted messages that centered on Portland’s strong creative undercurrent, innovation/forward thinking, environmental sustainability, urban offerings with less of a crowd, and natural beauty/outdoor experiences. These messages for their campaign embrace their unique DNA and by staying true to their destination DNA, this marketing campaign launched them into 2016’s #1 tourist destination.
  • The Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp (NCVC) has been named the top DMO in North America by National Tour Association. Nashville’s DMO utilized Nashville’s destination DNA by promoting their unique live music and dining scene. Through developing products such as Music City Center, the Zac Brown Southern Ground and Music City Eats, CMA Music Fest, Bonnaroo, New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July, Nashville has embraced its authentic music culture to propel itself into a top tourist destination.
  • Closer to home, Pensacola, Florida is partnering with local ad agencies to create a new tourism campaign that embraces local business and culture. The Visit Pensacola team wished to do something no other DMO had in Florida - engage the entire Pensacola marketing community into the Visit Pensacola brand. This campaign embraced the “real, relaxed, and simple” visual aspect, while “Find what you are searching for” showcased the diverse experiences visitors can experience in Pensacola. Through this campaign, the tourism industry has increased by 11%. Pensacola has embraced its unique identity in order to set itself apart from the rest of Florida, and the destination has succeeded.

We hope that with these tips you are able to uncover your destination’s DNA and use it to your brand’s advantage. Of course, the Frances Roy team is here for any questions or marketing needs you may have!

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