A successful destination brand depends on the reciprocal relationship of the two core concepts: brand identity and brand image. To avoid confusion frequently occurred between these two concepts, one can distinguish them from the sender-receiver perspective (Florek et al., 2006): identity is created by the senders (destination marketers), whereas image is perceived by the receiver (consumers) (Kapferer, 1997). Consumers build a destination image in their mind based on the brand identity projected by the destination marketers.
Destination image is the specific perception about a place in a person’s mind. This image occurs independently, without influence of the countries’ conscious development of a brand image. This is the result of the destination’s features namely history, socio-political context, artistic and natural heritage. Consequently, country image affects the destination choice process (Morgan et al., 2004).
Destination image depends on the image construct, the imagery used by the DMO to represent destinations. From the supply perspective, image is “a nuclear component of the tourism product” (Middleton and Clarke, 2004), thus “a key element for destination development” (Font, 1997). It is “a strategic tool for destinations” (Echtner and Richie, 1993) and considered “a highly competitive element for destinations” (Ahmed, 1991). Meanwhile, under the lens of demand perspective, image construct is vital for travellers’ buying behavior.
Given the importance of image construct, Kozak et al. (2011) research into the etymology and history of the world “image”. Image has an important role in contemporary society with its root dated back to millennia ago. The word “image” derives from the Greek word “ikon” to denote a visual representation of an object which truly exists in reality. Since its first appearance in English in the 13th century, its meaning has evolved into a more complex construct. The Oxford English Dictionary groups the term in three categories: (1) copy of an object from the external world (figure, aspect, reflection); (2) a symbol of an object from a representational world (reproduction, imitation); (3) idea of object from an internal world (mental image, perception, impression). Stern et al. (2001, cited in Kozak et al. (2011 ) consider it “elastic referentiality”. In the same vein, Costa (1992, cited in Kozak et al., 2011) coins three terms correspondent to the above-mentioned categories respectively: retinal images, material images, mental images. In contemporary society, a single image can represent various ideas. Kozak et al. (2011) suggest the multidisciplinary construction of image from the perspective of philosophy, psychology and semiotics. With respect to philosophy, its contribution is of considerable importance to understand the theoretical foundation of image. It reflects the relationship between reality and man’s perception of it. This point is illustrated in the contrasting standpoints of Plato (the intuitiveness and no sensible forms of the world) and Aristotle (perception of the world built through man’s experience). This debate has given rise to two basic philosophical stances which shape the contemporary research: positivist approach and interpretivist approach. Relating to psychology, this field contributes significantly to image theory by providing notions about human processing systems. Cognitive psychology concerns with “the internal processes involved in making sense of the environment and deciding what action might be appropriate” (Eysenck and Keane, 1990, cited in Kozak et al., 2011). Imagery process evoked as a sensory perception is one of the processes. This process is based on man’s experience and leads to mental images. As such, perceptions are formed through descriptive information and imagery. The last important field is semiotics. Discussions between Plato and Aristotle as well as debates about signs and communication were on-going until the 20th century with the emergence of semiotics as a discipline. From the early work of Ferdinand Saussure to the contemporary semioticians such as Charles Peirce and Roland Barthes, Lindekens, Umberto Eco, words and images are signs and need to be transformed into meaningful information. Semiotics is essentially an instrument through which an idea, a notion, a symbol, an impression or a sensation is transformed into meaningful information.
Image in contemporary society has been the subject of study since the mid-1950s. Boulding, the pioneer of image study, views image from ontological stance, arguing that the world is what man interprets rather than the truth itself. In this line of thought, through the notion of “pseudo events” which are planned to construct image in society, Boorstin (1992, cited in Kozak et al., 2011) views the world just an illusion. Costa (1992, cited in Kozak et al., 2011) highlights the dominance of ”image” or visual signs in our world. Visual communication is ubiquitous and powerful in contemporary society, which is put forward by Heidegger ”the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as a picture” (cited in Urry, 1997). In the same vein, Schroeder (2002, cited in Kozak et al., 2011) describes the current world as ”organised around attention, in which strategic communication incorporates visual images designed to capture attention, build brand names, create mindshare, produce attractive products and services, and persuade citizens, consumers and voters.” Capriotti (1992, cited in Kozak et al., 2011) identifies three theoretical perspectives of image: image as fiction (the correspondence to an idea created in the consumer’s mind, which differs from the actual image), image as an icon (a mental representation of a brand as an icon), image as an attitude (the association of the concept of image with the concept of attitude, or rather, the image is based on a cognitive dimension). As stated above, brand image is characterised by a strong subjective component, therefore is difficult to work with. In this way, one of the most important aspects for brand management is to develop the desired corporate image and consequently, to communicate it in a consistent and coherent way. Avenarius (1993), Hunt and Grunig (1994, cited in Lopes, 2011) suggest public relations as the strategy to successfully execute that process. Public relations refer to the management of communication between an organization and its public. Marken (1994, cited in cited in Lopes, 2011) points out that such relationships help protect the image and reputation of organisations. Thus, image and reputation become critical elements for business success and are not abstract, and reputation is the set of values that stakeholders attach to an organization based on their perception and interpretation of its brand image. However, the image of a brand in the market does not always coincide with the image that the company intends to transmit or the actual brand image. As such, organizations tend to consider three different levels for the analysis of brand image: the analysis of the perceived image (how the target segment perceives the brand through a brand image study), the analysis of the actual image (strengths and weaknesses as perceived by the company, based on an internal audit), the analysis of the desired image (how the company wants to be perceived by the target segment).
In destination marketing, image contruct is an important building block in developing destination brands. Middleton (2004, cited in Lopes, 2011) argue that images are important for such a complex phenomenon as tourism as its promotional activities involve primary resources (climate, monuments, traditions, etc.) and secondary resources (accommodation, transport, catering, etc.). These multiple resources or tourism products have the following characteristics: intangibility, heterogeneity, inseparability (Cooper et al., 1998, cited in Lopes, 2011). Travel decision is influenced by impressions and perceptions without the ability for prospective travellers to test drive, thus intangibility. Subjectivity in tourism service provision in which the producer (service provider) and consumer (tourist) are the service itself and determinately participate, therefore inseparability and heterogeneity. Other scholars further examine the complex characteristics of tourism products proposing different terms. Grounded on a combination of several products, one of key characteristic of tourism is interdependence. Krippendorf (1971) highlights the “complementarity” between tourism services suppliers in accommodation, transport, attractions. Schmoll (1977) supports this view, stating that “in isolation, the various product elements are of limited value to the tourist – their combination creates great value and desirability.” In the same vein, Buhalis (2000, cited in Lopes, 2011) uses the term “dynamic wheel” to demonstrate the synergy between the several stakeholders. For an effective positioning and promotional strategies of destination image, it is required cooperation among different stakeholders.
In sum, there is an interdependence between destination image and image construct: the perception of a destination in a customer’s mind depends significantly on the images projected by the DMO. Due to the complex nature of tourism and the subjectivity of perception, the image construct should be formed based on multidisciplinary perspective including philosophy, psychology and semiotic.