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Selling the Cooks via word of mouth

Tuesday October 01, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

It’s a running joke in our family that we moonlight as volunteers for the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.

We’re always encouraging friends, family, and newfound acquaintances to visit the Cook Islands because we are completely confident that they will fall in love with the spirit and warmth of the country and people. We speak so highly of the Muri lagoon and the view from Te Rua Manga that people believe us, book flights, and make holiday arrangements.

And that’s the thing about word-of-mouth marketing: it works.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (yes, this is a real thing) supports this theory: “Brands can pay anyone to love their brand publicly, but the real power lies with customers who ultimately choose whether to share engaging content to friends, family, and often times, complete strangers,” its website says.

“Most importantly, it’s because they love your brand, not because you’re paying them.”

There seems to be general consensus amongst sociological researchers that word-of-mouth marketing is more effective than any other form of advertising. People are likelier to trust someone who’s promoting something not for financial gain but because he or she genuinely believes in it. I’m not an expert, but this seems like a logical premise.

Our family markets the Cook Islands gladly, and rarely do our efforts fail to achieve a yield. I have posted Air New Zealand offers on my Facebook page, and friends have spotted and seized them.

I’ve written about the Cook Islands – a story I wrote about Atiu was published in a Los Angeles magazine in July – and I know for a fact that people I know (and don’t) have read those stories and booked trips. Dozens of Americans have visited the Cook Islands over the years because my parents told them it would be worth it.

And while I’ve seen several billboards near the Los Angeles airport advertising the Cook Islands, I’ve never spoken to anyone who booked a holiday after spotting one.

I understand that it’s hugely difficult to advertise in a place as large, faraway, and saturated with advertising as Los Angeles. But it’s no secret that the Cook Islands taxpayers are propping up the direct flight to and from Los Angeles, and that the return on their investment is negligible. Often, flights to Rarotonga from Los Angeles are half-empty.

My point is this: perhaps our marketing approach needs tweaking.

This is a topical issue, as Cook Islands Tourism prepares to hire a new marketing firm in North America and government prepares to determine the fate of the flight subsidy. Maybe it’s time we had a productive conversation about creative advertising tactics – examples include spreads and stories in bridal, fishing, and travel magazines like Islands – and about how each one of us can contribute to the international marketing effort.

Road shows and billboards and pamphlets are important, but word-of-mouth is more so. Fortunately for us, social media has democratized the act of marketing. Almost every day on Facebook I come across flight deals, holiday packages, and day tours being advertised by Cook Islanders who don’t work for government. They aren’t being paid; they just want people to visit their islands and sustain their tourism-dependent cash economy. I wouldn’t be surprised if their informal marketing efforts have been largely successful.

The reality is that people aren’t going to visit a country they don’t know about. It is rare to come across a person in the Los Angeles area, aside from those of Pacific Islands descent, who has ever heard of the Cook Islands. People have asked me if “those are the islands by Indonesia” and others have informed me that they “know the Cook Islands are in Australia, but dunno exactly where”. One young man told me he’s “been to Rarotonga and it’s an island in the Caribbean”. No longer do I say the words “Cook Islands” without adding some form of the suffix “they’re near Tahiti”.

Common explanations for low numbers from the American market include “Americans aren’t travelling because of the recession” and “They go to Hawai’i instead”. I think a more accurate explanation is that they just don’t know about the Cook Islands. We’re an American tourist’s South Pacific dream: cheaper and less developed than French Polynesia, and just as breathtakingly beautiful. If they knew, they’d come.

Of the dozens of people our family have turned on to the Cook Islands, not a one has been disappointed. When those tourists return, sunburnt and relaxed, they always thank us for the recommendation.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not advocating a huge tourist influx. I know that could overwhelm our paradise. I just think we need to be smart about the way we use taxpayers’ money to tap into underperforming markets.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. Email me at the address listed above.

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  • Comment Link Tina Walker Saturday, 17 October 2015 10:34 posted by Tina Walker

    I'm from the US. Utah to be exact. I'll be coming in March or April. Heard about the cooks from a travel deals website. So excited about the non-stop from lax. See you in a few months!

  • Comment Link Dan Luckey Wednesday, 08 October 2014 13:04 posted by Dan Luckey

    I have been marketing the Cook Islands since I lived there while working at USP.......I will continue to tell people about the Cooks and encourage them to visit. I will also be taking a vacation there in the future.

  • Comment Link Karl Tuesday, 23 September 2014 16:32 posted by Karl

    I agree with your article about word of mouth being stronger than printed marketing, but the hardest thing is getting the word of mouth out there with a limited number of mouths where marketing strategy's now seem to be based on the shotgun approach of social and print media which is very hard to calibrate or analyse results .
    From my understanding about 80% of the tourist numbers come from New Zealand and are in the 35- 50 age bracket.
    In the tourism world that is a very narrow band of tourists almost like putting all your eggs in one basket.
    My thoughts are that marketing to other country's is imperative to spread risk of relying on the New Zealand economy for tourist numbers over the next 10 years by looking to open new markets to share the risk and capitalise on the European and USA tourist markets as the world economy hopefully stabilises.
    Rarotonga has a beautiful and strong brand in New Zealand and this branding should not be to hard to take to other country's such as Australia and the east coast of the USA.

  • Comment Link Becky Friday, 08 August 2014 11:30 posted by Becky

    I'll be there all next week … from Orange County, California!!!
    I have no ties to the Cook Islands, just stumbled on your beautiful islands of paradise while researching a potential trip to Bora Bora. The less 'commercialized' environment was very attractive and the new non-stop flight from LAX 'sold us' on our upcoming adventure. I will say researching places to stay was a bit difficult and interesting. We are traveling with a few uncertainties … basically winging it! Any/all suggestions are welcome. See you soon!!