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‘Unmapped into abstraction’: Baudrillard, Scotland, and the problem of a powerful place-brand

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  • N830 Uk Tourism
  • Communication
  • Economics


The argument is that attempts to ‘brand’ tourist destinations require caution. Brand guru Wally Olins is bullish about the advantages possessed by countries that appear to come ready-branded: ‘Scotland is OK…it has tartans, kilts, Scotch whisky, the Highlands, ‘Braveheart’ and the Edinburgh Festival’ (2010, p.23). These, to which one could add haggis, cabers and bagpipes, constitute an iconography that enjoys exclusive symbolic association with Scotland. Scotland is thus, we are assured, ‘OK’. This paper seeks to reveal a reality more complex. A theoretical background is provided by the work of Baudrillard. His views on brands are, as one might expect, dismissive: ‘…the “loyalty” to a brand name is nothing more than the conditioned reflex of a controlled affect’ (2001, pp 20-1). But the implication that the brand is a reductionist device, that inhibits conscious thought, is arguably true. This puts the brand at odds with what is known about the experiential expectations of the exploratory tourist. Briefly, it is argued that a brand exists when a product acquires symbolic value, which converts into economic value in the form of premium price, or into emotional value, in the form of consumer loyalty. The stronger the brand, the more the symbolic eclipses the real, inhibiting the consumer’s conscious evaluation of essence. Branding is thus useful for creating product distinctiveness where the essence is weak, and the product is simple. One thinks, for example, of a cola drink, or soap powder. But geographical places have pre-existing personalities, in the form of perceptions shared by people. Unlike the cola drink, the essence is strong, and the product is complex. It is this essence, an ‘authentic’, that the exploratory tourist seeks to uncover (MacCannell,1976). The existence of genre of travel literature dedicated to the uncovering of the ‘hidden’, ‘secret’ and ‘undiscovered’ is testimony to this (Voase, 2006). Therefore, to apply branding to tourist destinations, uncritically, is to ignore this dimension of tourist expectation. A study of the case of Scotland shows how the iconography associated with that country has not been treated by the Scotland’s destination marketing organisation as a de facto asset. A content analysis of Scottish Tourist Board (STB) brochures revealed, between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, a distancing from the use of stereotypical iconography. An STB television advertisement of the mid-1990s featured a Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, who spoke of Scotland having been ‘unmapped into abstraction’: an aching expression of a country reduced to stereotypes. This is uncannily redolent of Baudrillard’s writings on the era of simulation, in which ‘the map…engenders the territory’ (1994, p.1). The paper concludes with an exploration of practical implications, informed by a research interview with VisitScotland’s Head of Marketing for the UK and Ireland. Deployment of the stable of stereotypical Scottish images is very much a managed process, with differential and selective use of Scottish iconography for different markets. The conclusion of the paper suggests that ‘branding’ is not a concept that can be applied uncritically to the complexities of tourist destinations. Caution needs to be exercised. References Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. Baudrillard, J. (2001) The System of Objects. In Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. M. Poster, pp 13-31, Cambridge: Polity Press. MacCannell, D. (1976) The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: Schocken Books. Olins, W. (2010) Branding the nation – the historical context. In Destination Branding: creating the unique destination proposition: revised 2nd edition. Ed. N. Morgan, A. Pritchard & R. Pride, p. 17-25, Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann. Voase, R. (2006) Creating the Tourist Destination: Narrating the ‘Undiscovered’ and the Paradox of Consumption. In Tourism, Consumption and Representation: Narratives of Place and Self. Ed. K. Meethan, A. Anderson & S. Miles, pp 284-299, Oxon: CABI.

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