• Transform magazine
  • June 22, 2024

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The state of play

VCA TUP SEQUOIA

California tourism leaders want us all to feel better, believe playtime is the remedy and say the state has an unmatched ability to deliver it. Lisa Battles explores Visit California’s latest brand evolution launched early this year.

California’s new tourism brand platform took to the air like a beach ball in an energetic commercial spot that debuted on 4 March. Called “Let’s Play,” the spot introduced California as “The Ultimate Playground” in a $32.8 million integrated campaign across the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, Australia and China. 

“The Ultimate Playground” is the first new brand platform in over a decade for Visit California, the non-profit corporation charged with promoting the state’s travel industry, which is consistently among the largest in the US and world. 

The media buy for the spot includes national linear TV, online TV and digital partnerships paired with high-impact OOH activations.

If you haven’t seen the commercial, catch the vibe by cueing up Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” and just press play. The song sets the tone as a colourful beach ball bounces through 10 different iconic settings and experiences throughout The Golden State. Characters in each setting move the ball along to the next. The scenes range from the ball getting a playful kick by a rock climber to rock fans bopping the ball across a music festival crowd. 

To develop the spot, Visit California turned to its brand agency of record for 20 years, The Shipyard (formerly known as Mering until a 2021 merger). 

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“Using a beach ball to journey across the state was a fun, visual metaphor for the spontaneous adventures waiting around every corner,” said Kerry Krasts, executive creative director at The Shipyard, when the spot was released. “The song “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra – called the happiest song of all time – gives us the perfect bounce to tie it all together.”

Notably, a Californian invented the beach ball in 1938, further underscoring the state’s prominence when it comes to fun. While they didn’t invent play itself, it’s undoubtedly been an important aspect of California’s DNA, a fact that emerged as a leading differentiator in consumer research, says Visit California president and CEO Caroline Beteta. 

“California’s playful, free-spirited attitude, paired with its abundance of experiences, create the Ultimate Playground—something no other destination can claim,” she says.

Complex insights drive nuanced changes

While Visit California’s previous “Dream Big” brand platform resonated well with consumers over the past decade, Beteta says consumer perceptions of the state have changed in complex ways. That understanding required their approach to the new brand platform to be equally multifaceted and thoughtful.

She says since the new platform and its predecessor share a lot of common ground, they refer to this rollout as a brand evolution and “truly the dream realised.” While the former touted California’s anything-is-possible vibe of boundless opportunity, the evolution is “grounded in the state’s playful, open-minded ethos.”

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“Our third-party global research supported the emphasis of attributes more aligned with ‘being fun and free-spirited’ and ‘a place where you can be yourself,’” she says. “What came forward in testing was the very important message that California inspires people to play.”

Further research about the restorative and transformative power of play revealed California’s unique position to be “a catalyst for a larger movement towards play,” she adds.

In addition to the TV spot, the brand evolution includes a refined logo with updated typography. A star representing the California Republic icon now dots the second “i” in the state’s name. The brand’s photography guidelines also include subtle differences, reflecting a move toward first-person perspective imagery to “put viewers in the seat of the action and evoke that personal call to travellers to pursue playfulness in their lives and express their individual form of play,” Beteta says.

VisitCalifornia.com now has a feature where visitors can do a research-backed quiz to find their individual play styles and be matched with experiences that best align with their personalities. 

It’s important to note this is just the beginning of the major global brand rollout across 14 markets, with “many surprises still to come for consumers and the travel industry” over the next 18 months, Beteta says. 

Why mindsets mattered

Many factors drove the decision to evolve the brand, with the main reason being Visit California is “always striving to be a next-generation marketer” on behalf of its stakeholders. For more than 30 years, that has meant staying on the leading edge of consumer sentiment and needs in sync with the state’s dynamic identity. 

“California’s brand has never been static, and this latest brand evolution allows us to meet consumers where they are today,” Beteta says.

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And where are consumers today? Many are still facing mental health challenges at as high a rate as the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to recent reports.

“For every three people who feel they are flourishing or getting by in life, there are two who are languishing or struggling. Indeed, the proportion of people who are struggling with their mind health has returned to 2021 levels, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Patrick Cohen, CEO AXA Europe and Health, in the AXA Mind Matters report conducted with Ipsos France. 

As for the tourism industry’s resilience in the wake of the pandemic, UN Tourism predicts a full recovery for international tourism by the end of 2024. Visit California’s 2024 forecast expects the state to finally close in on its 2019 peak visitation total. While things are looking much brighter for travel, it seems there’s a huge opportunity for industry professionals to better connect with consumers to positively impact their lives.  

Enter the play scientists

“Our research team conducted deep consumer sentiment analysis throughout the pandemic, finding some alarming trends in the increasing mental health crisis. Thought leaders from the University of California, Edelman, Wunderman Thompson, Blue Shield and others pointed to a polycrisis of wellbeing on the rise,” Beteta says. “This, coupled with an American workforce in the throes of collective burnout, pointed again and again to travel and play as the antidote to myriad troubling societal trends.

“Play is crucial to human development, and the deprivation of play has proved to be a key indicator of mental health issues plaguing both adults and kids. The power of play is scientifically proven, and the majority of every generation isn’t satisfied with the amount of time they spend playing. It’s time for that to change,” she adds. “More than 85% of global consumers agree it’s important to incorporate play into their lives, and 43% said that vacation ‘is the only time I have to really let go and play.’”

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And this is where the National Institute for Play comes into… play. The California-based organisation is helping with insights and ongoing research to strengthen the brand as this evolution continues, Beteta says. 

“Their collective research over the course of decades – along with other play scientists, such as Jeff Harry, Jaak Panksepp, Peter Gray and Kevin Carroll – is foundational to a brand evolution that could easily be dismissed as frivolous.”

Results so far

Measurable results of the initial ad campaign were not available at this writing, as the first round of ad tracking will not occur until late spring. Creative testing results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Creative testing exceeded our expectations in terms of positivity, global relevance and cross-generational appeal,” Beteta says. “Compared to last year’s campaign as a benchmark, the new ‘Let’s Play’ campaign rated higher across markets. Positive ratings were over 75% in all countries, far exceeding our 60% benchmark.”

In the meantime, keep an eye on the California beach ball to see where it lands next.

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This article was taken from Transform magazine Q2, 2024. You can subscribe to the print edition here.