Do Hawaiian beaches hit your hot button?

August 9, 2002

A PhD in psychology has given Bill Siegel the edge in advising tourist boards. Adrian Mourby continues our summer series on tourism.

In the 1960s, Bill Siegel was intending to do his PhD in physiological psychology at the University of Michigan on the role of the frontal cortex. His supervisor, however, specialised in performing brain operations on rhesus monkeys and, on arrival, Siegel discovered that some of the monkeys carried Virus B. The fatality rate once bitten by an infected monkey is 70 per cent.

"In fact," he recalls, "the girl I was replacing had been in the hospital for two weeks under 24-hour observation. She survived, but suddenly my interests switched to experimental psychology and the study of human memory and perception."

It was a change that led Siegel on a circuitous route to advising tourist boards and top travel destinations on marketing their products. After spells teaching psychology and research methods at the University of Western Ontario and a summer as distinguished visiting professor at the University of Western Australia, he asked a friend in Canada who had a successful career in marketing whether a PhD in psychology qualified him to do anything in the "real world".

"Al, who at that time was brand manager for Alpo Dog food, pulled out a market research report and said, 'Look at this!' I did, and it was tables of numbers on one side, and words repeating the same numbers on the other side. 'It looks pretty simple to me,' I said. 'I just paid $20,000 for this report,' said Al."

When Siegel noticed that the telephone company Bell Canada was seeking someone with a PhD in psychology to be manager of marketing research, he applied straight away. "They wanted someone to investigate the effectiveness of advertising. What impressed me, as an impoverished academic, was that they actually paid my way to their headquarters in Montreal for an interview. I was even more impressed - and surprised - that they made me an offer."

After learning market research at Bell, Siegel moved to Toronto to work as director of research at a top Canadian advertising agency. The director wanted "to do something spectacular to differentiate his company from the competition. He thought that my academic background was neat and would impress his clients. What better background for advertising research than a PhD in human perception and memory?"

The job gave Siegel the opportunity to pitch his "dream concept" - to set up an internal research company. It was 1978 and, at 35, Siegel was no longer an academic but president of the Longwoods Group of Companies. "The business took off despite the competition's put-down that we would never make it because we were too academic."

The combination of scholarship and marketing nous has paid off. In 1985, Longwoods was hired to conduct a $1.3 million tourism study to change Canada's image in the US. Siegel initiated more than 9,000 interviews.

"This was the largest piece of research conducted to date on US travel. We seized the opportunity to go after the much larger American market and develop a specialty in travel and tourism."

Longwoods has worked not only for the Canadian government but also for Mexico, France and the US, plus 20 individual US states, numerous cities, various cruise lines and the Disney organisation. The group specialises in image, branding and measuring the return on investment of particular promotions. Siegel reckons that his background in behavioural research has given him an advantage over the competition.

"There's quite a bit of transfer of content from academic psychology to the world of marketing and advertising. For example, it is typical in marketing research to take the direct approach to measuring human motivation. That is, to determine what motivates people, researchers will typically ask them what is important to them, or get them to rate a number of possibilities in a consumer survey. But when you do that, you typically get all the left-brain, rational answers."

Siegel found that research on children's cereals, for example, showed that mothers said that what was important to them was "nutrition". But further questioning revealed that they normally bought the sweetened brands.

"The point is if you want to know what's important to people, don't ask. You will usually get the rational response. Many purchase decisions are driven by right-brain emotional considerations that people can't verbalise and are not aware of. This is especially the case for planning vacations, where fantasy and escape are the driving forces."

Siegel's approach to market research has been to develop techniques that get below the data surface and measure what he calls "the emotional hot buttons" that determine our choice of a holiday destination. "For instance, Hawaii was advertising itself as a great beach destination. Whenever they asked people why they visited Hawaii, the answer came back 'the beaches'

and 'to relax'. But using our more sophisticated methodology, we discovered that it was excitement, adventure and uniqueness that were the real hot buttons."

Thus it was that Siegel came up with Hawaii's new esoteric campaign slogan, "The Islands of Aloha", which markets the state using the traditional Hawaiian greeting. Tourism marketing may not be rocket science, but an academic approach can pay.

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