In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Marina Puzakova about her research on humanizing brands, also known as anthropomorphism, in marketing and advertising for everything from destination tourism to various products.

Puzakova is an associate professor of marketing in Lehigh's College of Business who holds the Alison and Norman H. Axelrod '74 Summer Research Fellowship. Her research interests are in branding strategies, brand anthropomorphism, and negative brand performance.

The tourism study “When the Unknown Destination Comes Alive: The Detrimental Effects of Destination Anthropomorphism in Tourism,” was conducted by an international team of researchers: Puzakova; Hyokjin Kwak, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; Joseph F. Rocereto, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey; and Takesi Moriguchi, Waseda University, Tokyo. It was published in the Journal of Advertising.

Puzakova spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation, focusing on the destination tourism study. Read the complete podcast transcript

Jack Croft: This year, as—hopefully—the worst of the pandemic has eased at least somewhat, a new term has been introduced to the tourism lexicon: “revenge travel.” And that refers simply to people who have been cooped up, like most of us, for most of the past couple of years during the pandemic, finally taking the dream vacations they missed out on during the pandemic lockdowns and the aftermath. I do think that provides a great context to talk about the most recent study you published with three of your colleagues, which looked at the benefits and risks of what you call “destination anthropomorphism” and tourism. What is destination anthropomorphism, and what are some examples of it in real life?

Marina Puzakova: Destination anthropomorphism is a term that my colleagues and I came up [with] together, and we define destination anthropomorphism as attributing or endowing a destination with humanlike characteristics, intentions, emotions—so to say, a mind of its own. Basically, it is making consumers or tourists think of a destination as a real human being, as alive, as having humanlike traits.

This is not a new phenomenon. Advertising practitioners often strategically rely on the tactic of imbuing tourist destinations, such as vacation spots or cities or countries or hotels, with a particular persona, or communicating about the tourist destination as if it were a human. Just to give you some examples, Bulgaria as a country is very frequently referred to as “Mother Bulgaria” or India [as “Mother India,”] or Egypt as “Mother of the World.”

Destination advertising provides many opportunities for marketers when a destination is anthropomorphized in the advertisement. The general idea is to enhance its appeal to tourists. Australia's wildlife park created a promotion with Patrick the Wombat, that acts as an ambassador of the wildlife park, and it also became a local celebrity and attracted even other famous celebrities since 2013. Another example of that would be a Godzilla mascot that have been commonly used as a tourist ambassador to attract tourists to Tokyo. In fact, Japan is one of the countries that came up very frequently in my discussion with my colleagues. The Japanese region of Kumamoto Prefecture has used the anthropomorphized mascot, Kumamon, beginning in 2010, to successfully promote tourists to this region.

Croft: What were the main questions that you and your colleagues were looking to answer in undertaking this study?

Puzakova: We were looking at what kind of downstream outcomes destination anthropomorphism has in the marketplace. And our initial discussion began with the idea that given positive aspects of anthropomorphism, we would expect to find that destination anthropomorphism increases tourists' desire to visit that destination. This was our initial point. This is where we began our research journey.

Croft: Now the study that you embarked on with your colleagues included hypothetical examples of destination anthropomorphism for participants in the study to react to. So if you could talk a little about the destinations you chose and why they were included, because they were included for very specific reasons to get at different questions you were looking at.

Puzakova: We started with multiple destinations in our research. We looked at different destinations in Japan, we looked at Tokyo, we looked at Inazawa, Japan, we looked at Hanoi, Vietnam, we looked at London, England, Sydney, Australia, and some of the local destinations such as Seward, Alaska in the United States. We were trying to cover an entire range of different destinations that are close in terms of cultural distance and are further away from cultural distance, some familiar destinations, less familiar destinations, destinations from foreign cultures, destinations from local cultures.

Croft: And how did you show participants these different destinations? It seemed that there were two different kinds of images and accompanying text, which was very important, of course, to differentiate between the two approaches.

Puzakova: We, as a research team, created a variety of different advertisements with the most popular images within those specific tourist destinations. And we separated our treatment groups into one that saw anthropomorphized communication and the other group that didn't see anthropomorphized communication. There are different ways to induce anthropomorphism or perception of humanization in advertising communication. But one of the most frequently utilized methods of doing that is to include a humanized character in communication.

Croft: Obviously, we're doing this by audio-only, so we can't show the slides. But I can include those in this when we put the podcast online. One of them has the text, "I am the city of Osaka, Japan," and there's a character with that. "Come visit and explore my heritage." So that's what you're talking about in terms of the anthropomorphizing or humanizing the city for readers.

destination tourism study humanized ad
This is the destination tourism study's humanized ad. Courtesy of Marina Puzakova.

Puzakova: That is correct. We were trying to facilitate consumer perception of a branded destination as humanlike. As I already mentioned, one way to do that is to include a humanized character, but to really facilitate perception of the destination as humanlike, we also included what we call a first-person communication. So the destination comes alive by appealing to consumers, by really talking to a consumer, which is again a very popular communication tactic that is utilized across a variety of different academic articles and in the real world examples, talking to a customer or a tourist, in this particular case from the first-person language.

Croft: Just to follow up on that, the same image from Osaka, Japan also had another treatment with third-person text communication. "This is the city of Osaka, Japan. Come visit and explore the city's heritage." So the only difference really is “I am” and “my heritage” between those two [examples]. As we talk about the main findings now, those were the things that people were reacting to. And I'm curious, how did they react to those two different treatments that they were exposed to?

Destination tourism study's non-humanized ad
This is the destination tourism study's non-humanized ad. Courtesy of Marina Puzakova.

Puzakova: At the beginning, as I already mentioned, we expected to find that destination anthropomorphism would, in fact, enhance tourist desires to visit the destination. But our findings were really fascinating, and I would say even quite surprising. We found that anthropomorphizing destination from the same culture-- and the example of that would be visiting a city in Alaska, United States, right? We studied participants in the United States. We found that anthropomorphizing destination from the same culture [as study participants] would increase people's desire to visit the destination. That part was very consistent with our expectations.

But what really surprised us, and then where we put most of our thinking in trying to explain the findings, anthropomorphizing a culturally distant tourist destination such as those that I mentioned, Japan or Vietnam, leads to lower consumers’ or tourists' intention to travel to that destination. And this negative destination anthropomorphism effect disappears for destinations that are culturally close to tourists' destination, such as London, England or Sydney, Australia. So what we found was that destination anthropomorphism does not have a universal positive effect. And cultural distance really impacts the way destination anthropomorphism works.

By cultural distance, we mean how similar the culture where people are going or how different the culture where people are going is from a person's own culture. We actually based those predictions, and we found answers, in the intergroup contact theory, which basically suggests that people frequently feel very uncomfortable when interacting with members of different social groups and oftentimes even expect that the out-group member contact is likely to be disapproved by in-group members.

For example, interactions with out-group members that are less dissimilar to an in-group such as a culturally close destination, they should reduce perceptions of risks associated with traveling to those destinations. And we in fact found that traveling to London, England or Sydney, Australia, destination anthropomorphism didn't have any effect at all. So there was no negative effects and no positive effect. And this is our main finding: based on the intergroup contact theory that traveling to culturally distant destinations from a person’s, from the tourist’s, own culture would lead to really negative outcomes, which was very surprising for us.

Croft: So what are the key takeaways that those working in the tourism industry should take away from this study?

Puzakova: Provided that destination anthropomorphism is a very prevalent tactic in hospitality and tourism and travel industry, as we already discussed, our findings show that the use of anthropomorphism promoting certain destinations might be both an effective and detrimental strategy for destination branding. Most importantly, our work establishes that destination anthropomorphism could be an effective strategy for destinations within the same culture. For example, in promoting tourism in Alaska or United States national parks to American consumers, marketers are very strongly advised to incorporate anthropomorphic imagery and communication, for example, first-person communication.

However, our findings reveal, in contrast, that advertisers should carefully design their destination promotions or advertisement messages and be really cognizant of cultural distance because cultural distance influences the effectiveness of their campaigns. For example, in design and communication to foreign tourists, advertisers should exercise caution prior to incorporating destination anthropomorphism strategies in their marketing communication.

Our findings also show that firms are advised to assess the level of knowledge of their target destination that the travelers in their target market currently possessed. If travelers' familiarity with the advertised destination is pretty low, then our work would caution the use of destination anthropomorphism as a communication tactic.

Marina Puzakova

Marina Puzakova

Marina Puzakova, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing at Lehigh University College of Business.