Brand USA's content, including films, have generally won praise and performed well with many international travelers. But the competition on streaming services and TVs is fierce, and much of the organization's challenge will be to tell compelling stories that don't read like a tourism campaign.
After one of the worst years for international tourism to the United States in the past decade, Brand USA, the country’s national destination marketing organization, is turning to smart televisions and streaming to get an edge.
Brand USA is launching its GoUSA TV channel this week on smart TV platforms, or those with Internet connections, that stream programming through Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku in various markets in North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
The smart TV channel, which had a soft launch in November in some markets, will feature episodic video content about outdoor activities, road trips, food, and events throughout the United States.
Many travelers are cord-cutting and ending relationships with cable providers because of the popularity of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and buying smart TVs to stream these services and other channels.
GoUSA can be viewed by any traveler in some of the country’s largest visitors’ markets such as Canada, the UK, and Germany, but millennial travelers remain a key audience for Brand USA, said Tom Garzilli, chief marketing officer of Brand USA.
“Millennials are cord-cutting in record numbers and to be on their TV sets and provide them with different experiences is what we feel like is a big part of what we call our all-screen strategy, to be in front of travelers whether they’re at a movie theater, a smartphone or a TV in their living room,” said Garzilli. “Whether people are cutting the cord or not, their TVs are coming with these services.”
Some 59 percent of all TVs sold worldwide in the first six months of 2017 were smart TVs, up nearly 16 percent year-over-year for the same period, according to market research company GfK. “We’re taking advantage of the fact that the whole world is moving towards video-on-demand and streaming TV,” said Garzilli.
Carnival Corp., for example, also launched a smart TV channel last year to increase engagement with consumers and directly communicate with them for longer periods of time.
Garzilli said Brand USA drew inspiration from Netflix on how that company delivers content. “We’re going to learn as we do just based on what kind of content is consumed and we plan to learn from the user,” he said. “It’s hard to get specific usage numbers from these channels. They don’t talk about specifics because of their competitors or what the audience is but we know that it’s growing.”
China Will Come Next
China, one of the largest overseas markets for the U.S. and the world’s largest outbound travel market, isn’t part of the initial GoUSA rollout, but Brand USA plans to launch the channel in China later this year or in 2019, said Garzilli.
Gfk found that 89 percent of all of TVs sold in China between January and June 2017 were smart TVs, compared to 56 percent of all TVs in Europe for the same period.
Brand USA has seen early signs that the Chinese market responds well to smart TV content. “The rollout of everything we do in China looks different than everything we do in other places,” said Garzilli. “When we first launched streaming for [our “National Parks Adventure” film], we actually streamed the film in China first on Youku and had 1.5 million downloads in China for the first three months after we started streaming it.”
Standing Out on Smart TVs
Garzilli said one of the next challenges for the GoUSA channel is to get international travelers to notice it on their TVs. “Currently the channel is there for travelers to find it but it doesn’t automatically show up,” he said.
“Over time, it will move up as it becomes more popular and gets recommended by Apple TV and Amazon, for example. We’re also shooting to be on Google as well, the largest of remaining channels we’re not on,” said Garzilli.
The Apple TV app, for instance, is available in eight countries including the U.S. and there are fewer than a dozen channels on the app in each country such as the UK, France, and Australia.
Besides the U.S., Amazon Fire TV is available in the UK, Germany, Japan, and India, while Roku is present in many countries and recently expanded to Latin America.
Brand USA will hit many, but not all, of its top international markets with GoUSA, but these platforms are also continuing to expand to new markets.
The organization will also be promoting the GoUSA mobile app that’s meant to pique travelers’ interests in snippets of shorter content that hopefully convince them to tune in to longer-form content on their TVs.
Creating Content to Rival Streaming Services
GoUSA will debut with 100 pieces of content, said Garzilli. “Between now and the next six months we’ll start to add longer-form content that we’ll curate and create with our partners,” he said.
Brand USA is also launching its newest film, “America’s Musical Journey” next week, but Garzilli said the film won’t be available on GoUSA and instead will be shown in theaters and at events in top visitor markets. The “National Parks Adventure” film also won’t be available but has been streaming on Netflix since February 1, and Garzilli said “America’s Musical Journey” will also likely come to Netflix at some point.
Brand USA, however, plans to create programming around the films for GoUSA. “The films are immersive storytelling opportunities, but the thing about the films is that they’re static in that each of these two films are done and we will share them with the world for a long time,” said Garzilli. “But the USA story is anything but static. We felt we needed a way to constantly tell new and different stories beyond the limited scope of the films.”
In one GoUSA episode, for instance, Darius Rucker of “Hootie & the Blowfish” takes viewers around Charleston, South Carolina to talk about why he loves the city and his musical roots in the area.
It will ultimately be a lot of test and learn for the organization as it finds out what kind of content resonates most with international travelers from a melting pot of markets, but the organization is already considering more ideas.
“We will probably want to do some lists and educational things as we build an audience and understand what they’re looking for,” said Garzilli. “I’m hoping we’ll have the Samantha Browns and Anthony Bourdains wanting to contribute to this channel and we’re thinking of different ways to do that. But we’ll have to see.”
Brand USA was on the defensive last year including when it faced a potential funding cut or had to cope with convincing international travelers that the U.S. is still a welcoming and affordable destination. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and unfavorable exchange rates didn’t make that any easier.
A combination of Trump, currencies, visas and other factors led to a nearly four percent decline in international arrivals for the first seven months of 2017, the most recent period for which data is available.
The organization still facing challenges, as do other U.S. travel brands. But Brand USA is also showing it’s on the offense in 2018 with new strategies like smart TV, which it hopes will generate more than three million views this year. The question is whether travelers’ have an appetite for this kind of content considering the universe of options they already have on smart TVs.
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Photo credit: Brand USA is launching a smart TV channel, GoUSA, this week. Pictured is a still from one of the episodes in Charleston, South Carolina. Brand USA