New Costa Rica tourism campaign promotes ‘pura vida’ in U.S.

The numbers released by the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) this month revealed a record-breaking figure. In 2010, an estimated 2,099,829 tourists came to Costa Rica, the highest recorded number in history, besting the previous record set in 2008 by 10,000.

But instead of basking in the success of the feat, the ICT has increased its promotion of travel to Costa Rica in its top two markets, the U.S. and Canada.

Beginning in December, ICT’s Costa Rican logo and slogan “No Artificial Ingredients” hit the streets of the U.S.’s major markets. The most prominent of the advertisements appeared on a giant CBS screen in New York City’s Times Square in December. Every two hours for 32 days, a short 15-second promotional video of Costa Rica appeared on the mammoth screen. The ICT estimates that 1.5 million people saw the video, which was projected 1,152 times.

On the west coast, Costa Rica’s most colorful U.S. advertisement is in San Francisco, in the Powell Street Metro station downtown. The narrow hallway leading to the train platform is a Costa Rican sensory overload, with pictures of a macaw, a waterfall, a rainforest, toucans, a sloth on a tree, butterflies, beaches, and a colorful wheel of the traditional Costa Rican ox-cart. The floor of the hallway is covered with images of the ocean, while the ceiling, which is designed to look like clouds, has slogans that read “Magic of Nature,” “Please your senses and soul,” “colorful sandy beaches,” and “live a refreshing experience.”

According to the ICT, 300,000 passengers use the Powell Station of the San Francisco Metro every day.

“This campaign hopes to encourage U.S. citizens to travel to Costa Rica and leave the cold of winter for the sun of our beaches and warmth of the Costa Rican people,” said Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides in a press release. “Our studies indicate the average North American tourist dedicates three months to decide where to vacation and two more months to organize it. We are confident that this campaign will provide incentive for U.S. citizens to come beginning in the middle and end of the year.” 

ICT also placed a billboard alongside a Chicago highway.

When the promotional spots have run their course in Chicago and San Francisco, the ICT will put up new campaigns in Houston and Seattle.

Also, in January, the ICT contracted Atlanta-based advertising agency 22Squared to promote Costa Rica in the U.S. and Canada.

“Their experience in tourism, the good recommendations from their clients, a shared vision in the area of sustainability, and well-established, long-term relations with their clients were the key reasons for the choice of this firm,” said ICT Marketing Director María Amalia Revelo.

22Squared has a long track record of successful promotional campaigns for U.S. companies and tourism ventures, including Marriott, Toyota, the “VisitFlorida” campaign, and the popular restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings. According to 22Squared’s director of corporate communications, Julianna Bowman, using the company’s “friendship model” strategy, the company aims to attract potential clients by engaging them, versus a force-feeding approach. Bowman said that one of 22Squared’s most successful campaigns is Buffalo Wild Wings. Since they began working together, the number of Buffalo Wild Wings friends on the social networking site Facebook has increased from 70,000 to over 3.8 million.

“On social network sites, some company pages are more popular than others because they talk to you more like a friend than a brand, and that is the way we try to approach any consumer,” Bowman said. “Instead of talking at them, we like to listen and make sure we talk to them. We engage them on topics that they are interested in.”

But taking on Costa Rica will present a new challenge for the company. Instead of promoting a product, company or restaurant, they are now faced with the task of attracting more people to an already very popular country. 

“The numbers are through the roof as far as positive attributes and association with Costa Rica. It’s eco-friendly, it’s educational, it’s affordable, it’s so many things that are right on trend for [North] Americans right now,” said Phil Heuring, vice president and director of brand planning at 22Squared. “But making it accessible and making it happen, like ‘Why this year?’ and ‘Why now,’ and getting people to book vacations there; we think of it as both an opportunity and a challenge.”

Guarding the Costa Rica Brand

From “No Artificial Ingredients” to “Pura Vida,” and from health-care tourism to being deemed the “World’s Happiest Country” in 2009 by the Happy Planet Index; Costa Rica has a lot of clout in its brand name.

Last week, Dorie Clark, CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and a marketing strategy consultant, wrote a piece for the online publication The Huffington Post titled “Why Costa Rica is a Winning Brand,” in which she detailed four reasons why Costa Rica had achieved such a stellar international reputation. Clark wrote:

“Another way that Costa Rica has been successful in the past is ensuring that no side issues (read: civil wars, drug running, or armed gangs) dampen its core brand dominance in ecotourism.”

She added: “No one’s going to be interested in seeing monkeys in the rainforest if they’re afraid of getting kidnapped.”

And therein lies the piece of the Costa Rican brand that remains the most fragile. While someone traveling through the country may not be aware of the swelling national security problems, should they continue to grow, the Costa Rican brand could suffer.

Last year, Costa Rica was added to the U.S. government’s list of the world’s 20 major drug trafficking or producing countries. The list includes Afghanistan, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela (TT Sept. 15, 2010).

In addition to concern over increasing influence of regional drug traffickers, residents say security is their number one concern (TT Jan. 29, 2010).

It will be the containment of these pressing issues that will ultimately be the key to protecting the strength of the Costa Rica brand. Meanwhile, U.S. billboard campaigns will ensure that tourists keep pouring in.