Recently Leslie and I made it back home after a vacation overseas. Every couple of years or so we try to take a big trip in conjunction with our wedding anniversary and this time around we made the trek to central and eastern Europe. Our itinerary consisted of 10 days abroad where we split our time between Prague, Krakow and Budapest.
Overall the trip was fantastic. We did the tourist thing a bit, we did our best to live like a local, and we did more than our fair share of walking around. All three cities were charming in their own way, but I became especially enamored with Budapest.
One of the things I kept noticing and pondering on this trip was brands: why they exist and what kind of value they provide. Looking back on it now, it may have been somewhat silly to be thinking about branding and marketing while on an overseas vacation — but sometimes things become a bit clearer when you’re in a foreign land.
I’ve written before how I’m becoming a bit of a coffee snob. One of the things that I was continually searching for during the trip was some great coffee. In previous vacations abroad, we’ve had fantastic coffee in places like Italy or France, but for some reason we were having a tougher go of it on this particular trip. It seemed like most of the cafés or restaurants we went to viewed coffee as more of a dessert beverage than, oh, say, a delicious vessel for my morning caffeine fix. For instance, I had a hard time getting a solid morning latte.
So where did I end up turning the last couple of times when I needed my caffeine fix? You guessed it – Starbucks. Now I’m not the kind of American that seeks out U.S. brands while abroad. Actually, I’m far from it. I’d prefer to eat and drink like locals do, but I had a hard time finding coffee that I liked. Once I stepped into Starbucks, it all felt very familiar. The ambience. The décor. The espresso machines. The way the barista asked for my name and wrote it on my cup. And damn if the coffee didn’t taste just it would have if I had ordered it from a Starbucks location in Minneapolis. While Leslie couldn’t help but give me a hard time for frequenting a Starbucks while we were staying in Budapest, it was nice to know that I have a similar experience as I would back home.
When it came to planning our trip, we turned to a variety of resources: recommendations from friends, families or co-workers, websites such as Trip Advisor, and tour books. We usually rely on guide books the least out of those options. As I mentioned earlier we prefer to do more local activities instead of the typical tourist thing, but I have to say that we did come to rely pretty heavily on the Rick Steve’s Eastern Europe travel guide. We’re not big fans of Steve’s TV program but his guide book was rock solid. In addition to the book having good maps and suggestions, it also had something else. It had an air of familiarity – it was written with a very personal and casual tone. It felt like Steve’s was talking to us as if we were his travel partners. It may sound silly but the narrative behind the book made it feel more familiar and that familiarity made it seem trustworthy.
Instead of going the hotel route for the entire trip, we ended up booking apartments through airbnb in Krawkow and Budapest. I’ve used VRBO here in the States and haven’t had a problem with it, but I was a little nervous about using that kind of service abroad. Would the places be as advertised? Would we have trouble getting into the places since they weren’t hotels – especially the one in Budapest since we weren’t going to arrive until late at night (and we had to get our keys from a lock box instead of meeting the owner)? I likely would not have rented the apartments on my own, but I had heard good things about airbnb from friends. What I liked about the service is the sense of trustworthiness that the website conveys. It puts user reviews front and center which helps create credibility for the available apartments. Plus, all over the website they offer suggestions and tips on how to make the your travel experience a good one. It’s not like airbnb owns the properties – it doesn’t because it’s a networking platform for renters and property owners – but their brand takes the apparent risk out of the scenario for consumers. As a new user of their service I found it so reassuring that I went beyond my initial apprehension and booked what turned out to be two fantastic places.
I know that these three examples aren’t the only reasons why brands exist. Brands can serve many different purposes and fit many different needs. Sometimes as a marketer when you’re in the same space day after day or in the same routine week after week, it’s hard to get away from the norm to understand what your brand stands for. In those times you should try to take a step back and get some clarity on what a brand can be. For me, I was fortunate enough this time around to have the experience and learn the lesson while I was a few thousand miles away.
(Photos courtesy of Shuttersmack Photography + Design.)