As digital technology changes the purchase path for travel shoppers, today's California-bound visitors are heading to The Golden State via the web, leaving the well-worn trails of traditional holiday planning in the past. Visit California CEO Caroline Beteta and Vice President of Marketing Lynn Carpenter explain why they've flipped the pyramid to reach the touch-screen generation.

April 2013

How do you turn 423,000 square kilometers of US territory into a global brand? That’s been the question facing Caroline Beteta, President and CEO of Visit California, for 15 years. But with digital, she might just have cracked it.

As it happens, marketing a place has plenty in common with marketing a product, particularly when that place already has such a strong global identity to begin with. You need a compelling story, a healthy budget and committed stakeholders who share your vision. Fortunately, Visit California has all three. Under Beteta’s watch, the destination brand has grown into an “investor-oriented, $50m-plus global platform” with over 6,000 companies on board. And we’re not just talking about about independently owned motels, here - we’re talking about some of the planet’s biggest brands, from Disney and Universal Studios to AEG and Marriott. “Whereas most tourism boards are political,” says Beteta, “we’re entrepreneurs.”

That entrepreneurial spirit has seen Visit California pioneer a model in which individual regions and businesses integrate their own interests with the larger concerns of the state itself. “A decade ago we sat down with the industry and said if you really want to move the needle long-term, you’ve got to build a brand,” Beteta explains. That brand was California.

“We told them, ‘Okay guys, we’re marketing California here. You, Los Angeles, will not get people to your destination if they don’t consider California first.’ When you live in the inspiration phase of the consumer decision journey, it’s all about raising the visibility of California. And that means we have to change the way we approach it.”

Sounds simple, right? But what Visit California was proposing - a long-term, global strategy with the state as the star - was a major change of focus for theme park and rental car businesses used to measuring success in real-time. According to Beteta, it took 12 years to get everybody in the “California-centric boat.”

But with 224 million visitors a year (a projected increase of 2.5 percent year-on-year) and over $102 billion in annual tourism spending in the state, it’s working. The global brand is starting to stick - and why wouldn’t it? After all, California dreamin’ resonates around the world. This is the land of surf-friendly beaches and snow-capped mountains; the glamor of Hollywood and Silicon Valley’s buzzing creativity. “We're starting to monetize a lifestyle,” enthuses Beteta. “Yes, we have this incredible landscape but it’s driving a spirit, a progressive nature that people want to connect to and be part of, even if only temporarily, while on holiday.”

We realized that to get to the next place and still have our market penetration, we had to flip the pyramid and put the emphasis on content and our digital ecosystem.

The Digital Trail

Central to the success of the California brand has been its groundbreaking approach to marketing. Beteta and her team, including Vice President of Marketing Lynn Carpenter (who joined in 2007), were quick to spot that consumer behavior was shifting toward digital consumption. In fact, not only were people no longer consuming media in the same way (which made buying traditional media impressions less attractive), the entire way in which travelers decided where, how or even if to go on holiday was different now, too.

“That decision-making journey used to be linear,” says Carpenter. “Before computers, I’m going to buy a Fodor’s, I’m going to decide where I’m going, I’m going to decide who I’m going to go with, I’m going to figure out what the air travel’s going to cost me, and then maybe I’m going to get a travel agent to help me plan some of the other trip elements. Now think about the personal computer world and the transparency of being able to go to an OTA website. Think about all the sources on the web today that talk about California. As a potential traveller, your inspiration can come at any time of the day, on any screen that you’re on, and in a variety of different media vehicles. That is the exciting challenge of the marketer today - whatever field you’re in.”

The future, they realized, was making traditional media part of a larger, integrated marketing mix that used digital content as a way of connecting the global brand message with audiences in more highly engaged channels. “We realized that to get to the next place and still have our market penetration, we had to flip the pyramid and put the emphasis on content and our digital ecosystem,” says Beteta.

“We have a flat annual budget of $50m,” adds Carpenter, “and now we have to make it live across multiple mediums. It used to be a TV buy. Now it needs to be a TV buy and it needs to be an online buy and it needs to live across seven different screens. So how do you make those dollars work? Well, you’ve got to make sure that whatever you have created, those assets can work in different contexts so you’ve got to think differently. Now everything becomes a content play. Not, ‘I want to produce a 30-second TV spot,’ but, ‘I better go figure out what my suitcase of assets is for next year that I can propagate through any opportunistic media that comes my way.’”

Starting the Content Engine

That process actually started over a decade ago, when Beteta was thinking about integrated content platforms before they even had a name. Take Visit California’s collaboration in 2000 with filmmaker Greg MacGillivray: His IMAX documentary Adventures in Wild California had people paying 15 bucks to watch a 54-minute advert for The Golden State.

Today, content partnerships and digital platforms are central to everything Visit California does. A recent initiative called Speed, Surf and Ski saw Daytona 500 champ Jimmie Johnson and four other ‘statured’ athletes teaming up to enjoy the best that California has to offer - from the racetrack to the beach to the mountains - in a single day. According to Carpenter, traditional media returns were “respectable,” but social was “off the charts.”

The lesson? “It was just, again, that slap on the head that digital is the new engine,” she says. “We’re talking about trying to reach the ‘touch screen generation,’ these micro segments. We’re not going to reach these pockets of interest and influence through traditional media like TV.”

Instead, they’re looking to channels like mobile. Beteta admits that mobile “changed everything in terms of me entering the modern world.” It’s a hugely important platform for Visit California, not least because medium and message share some of the same traits - blurring the boundaries between work and play: “Our brand is showcased through people that are just passionate about their lifestyle and what they’re doing. Work is play. Play is work,” Beteta explains.

The eureka moment with mobile came when the team put some dollars aside to develop an app. Six months after launching it with popular lifestyle brand Sunset, Carpenter asked the data team to download the usage stats and discovered that they were 60 percent international. “We realized that in this global world there are no borders, so every program we do is international in scope.”

And yet the power of the channel is nothing without the content to back it up. “Content is the area of focus because it keeps us device and platform agnostic,” explains Carpenter. “You’ve got the content and if you have the foresight to develop it in ways that can be repurposed that content doesn’t expire. We’ve just got to think about producing it in a way that can be consumed in these various mediums.”

To Carpenter’s ‘touch screen generation,’ great content starts with authenticity. In that respect, Visit California’s secret weapon is its own residents. “If you love your location, you want to become an advocate for it,” says Carpenter. “So I think a big part of our marketing program will be thinking about social and the importance of consumer-generated content. There’s probably a lot of places in Santa Rosa to eat that I don’t know about, so how do I get access to that content?”

For authenticity on a much larger scale, Visit California has also formed a strategic alliance with AEG, who sponsor cycling’s AMGEN Tour of California. “Now we’ve got this synergy of a perfect demographic – a high per-capita spender and earner that has a propensity to travel and likes adventure – and a 10-day video postcard on California with one of the most popular sporting events in the world that’s broadcast to 200 countries,” says Beteta. “That’s the platform. Forget the 30-second spot. How about 10 days of scenic beauty and then packaging or creating a portal or a platform and then moving that through the digital channels as well?”

The Five-Year Plan

Of course, Visit California may be marching boldly into the digital future, but not without some butterflies in its stomach as it wonders how to measure success in this new space. “I’ve been stressing out about this for five years,” laughs Beteta. ”You realize influences are happening to you every minute of the day through every screen you’re touching, and we are driving many of those influences, but how do we take credit for them? That’s a question we haven’t answered yet.”

That won’t stop Visit California from moving forward though. “The next five years is about digital, being progressive, pushing the envelope because digital is mainstream now,” says Beteta. “Our target demographic is 25-54, household income $75,000-plus. Five years ago, the majority of the users were barely into that space. Now, the next five years represents a very rich target.”