The Cultural Analyst

Jottings on the world from a cultural perspective

How Can Cultural Analysis Be of Use in the Field of Tourism Marketing?


“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca

In the end of our first year of MACA we conducted our first team project for an actual client. My group worked for a client involved in marketing tourist experiences. Tourism is one of the biggest industries and a main source of income for a huge amount of people around the world. Tourism research is a huge branch, but most of the research followed by businesses within the industry is statistical or survey-based. It’s very common to calculate the amount of bed nights in a specific city or give estimates on a scale 1-5 on how pleasurable a specific pre-defined sector of travel experience has been for a traveler. Metering is essential but it can only provide you with the information on issues you are aware of you wish to get information on. By engaging in ethnographic research one can also find the so far unexpected and build the awareness that is crucial also in order to produce quality measurements.

Unfamiliarizing the Surroundings

To be able to understand the mundane everyday rules while remaining open for the unexpected we have to unfamiliarize with the familiar. By travel and change of place we unfamiliarize  the surrounding culture. Traveling makes you more aware of the mundane things around you. You become more alert and pay attention to everything around you: landscapes, buildings, everyday encounters, how do people speak, what do they do, what’s the food like etc. Everything is new and interesting in a new location. In this sense we as cultural analysts aim to be tourists within the fields we try to understand.

Understanding the Tourist Experience

Cultural analysts can help understand the tourist experience by engaging in it and analysing the web of elements it is constructed of. Taking human experience as a starting point implies a shift from product-centric approach to people-centric approach. Place is most often the product sold in tourism marketing, but what do people actually seek when they travel? This empirical question can only be answered by understanding how the tourist experience is embedded in its context – the life of a person who performs travel practices.

From Promoting Place as a Product to Helping People Construct Meaningful Experiences

Tourism marketing is mostly about advertising tourist attractions and services in a specific city, packaging and distributing experiences and ideas of experiences. Research can help marketers to understand how to package and share their information messages to people in a manner that provides new value in customers lives. People are not just tourists buying a specific standardized travel experience. These experiences are understood and consumed, become part of our lives in different ways. To realize how, we need to understand ways of living, relations, shared meanings and ways of doing things in different environments. We need to understand culture. This means going to the people and understanding their experiences, motivations behind them and meanings derived from them.

My home town Helsinki is also being marketed as a place with specific, beautiful sights. Could it be something else?

Cultural Analysis as a Tool for Understanding Life-changing Experiences

Economic indicators or rigid definitions based on length of stay or bed nights in a destination don’t really tell much about the diverse meanings people attribute to different tourist experiences. Cultural analysis leads us to take part in people’s life and engage in their experiences in order to learn from them.This task is not easy but the goal is clear. There are two questions cultural analysis helps businesses to answer to “What is it that is meaningful for people in what we provide and how could we provide something more meaningful?”. Cultural analysis and ethnographical methods imply an emphatic aim to understand people, their problems, needs and dreams. (Ruckenstein, Suikkanen &Tamminen, 2011)

People engage in different kind of travel practices in order to have life-changing experiences. Changes might be small; like relaxation, learning to surf or just being able to say “I’ve been there” but they are based on experiences that become part of our life and our self. Even though difference is a source of curiosity, returning home is a prerequisite of the tourist experience. Travelers appreciate the unfamiliar but also want to return to their familiar everyday lives. Experiences can vary greatly among people doing the same things in the same place. This is why mere measuring doesn’t give a sufficient base to tourism marketing to build strategic decisions on. Cultural analysis gives rich and deep insights of actual practices of travel and peoples motivations to engage in these practices. These insights are the foundation of the understanding that you need in order to succesfully package travel experiences for people.

Reference: Ruckenstein, Minna, Suikkanen, Johannes & Tamminen, Sakari (2011): Forget Innovation. Focus on value creation. Edita. Helsinki.

Author: Taneli Heinonen

I'm a MACA 2010 and a Junior Consultant at Helsinki-based people-centric consultancy Gemic. Defining problems and solving them by using ethnographic tools is my mere contribution to the Scandinavian welfare societies that provided me with free education.

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