Costa Rica’s vacation appeal is undeniable, particularly to visitors from North America, but that didn’t stop the national tourism board (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo, ICT) from launching one of the most ambitious -and successful- marketing campaigns ever created for stimulating visits to our country. The Million Dollar Gift of Happiness Campaign has been one of the most clever ways to market a country, and by looking at the strategies used, it is very likely that other nations will soon be using similar methods to attract tourism dollars.
It all began a couple of years ago when the New Economics Foundation, a European think-tank based in London, released its annual Happy Planet Index report. That report takes into account individual perceptions, ecological conservation, sustainability efforts, and social welfare to measure the happiness of a nation. The purpose of the Happy Planet Index is to show that happiness is not limited to Gross Domestic Product and per capita income. Costa Rica was ranked number three in 2006, and number one in 2009. The premise of a slowly developing Third World nation being the happiest in the world proved intriguing, and it bolstered the New Economics Foundation’s position that being green and peaceful is better for the soul of a nation than solid infrastructure and high salaries.
ICT took advantage of the media focus created by the Happy Planet Index report and thus the Million Dollar Gift of Happiness idea was born.
The Happy Partnership
Instead of taking on production of the campaign on their own, ICT’s executives partnered with esteemed American advertising agency 22squared. Based in Tampa and Atlanta, 22squared is hardly a stranger to tourism marketing. The agency is responsible for the successful Visit Orlando campaign, and they also count Marriott Hotels and Resorts as a client. Costa Rica is 22squared’s first sovereign client.
The campaign officially started on October 6 of last year and ended last week. As expected, 22squared and ICT highlighted Costa Rica’s natural beauty and the opportunities for relaxation and adventure, but what made the campaign unique from the start was the emphasis on the use of social media platforms. 22squared did a good job getting people excited about exploring our country through print and digital media, but the focus was on online social networking. Placing the concepts of happiness next to the idea of a million dollars on the campaign’s tagline and slogan was particularly clever.
Strategic Use of Facebook Engagement
22squared and ICT did not simply place a few ads here and there to attract followers to the official Facebook page. They reached out to the social media netizens who they thought could use a vacation, another astute idea. People tend to express their moods and emotions on social networks, which might be a reason why Ticos thrive in the social media sphere.
Allan Flores, our Minister of Tourism, made it clear that he wanted to market Pura Vida, and the rest was largely up to 22squared. Their chosen social media platform, Facebook, contained many cool features that attracted over a hundred thousand followers during the weeks of the campaign. It is a highly visual endeavor, complete with dozens of appealing photos and videos highlighting all the cool activities that make up a truly happy vacation. To create a sense of community and continuous engagement, 22squared encouraged followers to share items of interest such as vacation stories and tips, as well as photos and videos.
The campaign wasn’t all about marketing Pura Vida; it was rather a way to find the right candidates, those who could use some happiness in their lives. This is where 22squared truly shined, as the chosen winners had a thriving social network that allowed the campaign to grow organically.
The chosen mascot of the Million Dollar Gift of Happiness is another winner: an adorable and perennially laid-back sloth, perhaps based on Buttercup, a Tico female sloth that is one of the most photographed in the world. Choosing a Manuel Antonio sloth as a mascot was quite timely; as online interest in the cute arboreal mammals has increased considerably in the last few months. The Costa Rica Star reported on a sloth orphanage and sanctuary in Cahuita around the same time the campaign was heating up, and Hollywood actress Kristen Bell recently suffered an on-camera meltdown brought on by cuteness overload when a sloth was the special guest at her birthday celebration.
22squared also capitalized on the ongoing happiness of two would-be newlywed couples and their brush with media attention. A couple from Kentucky appeared on the popular Anderson Cooper show to be awarded a vacation after the bride fainted during her proposal. The episode was recorded on video and had already gone viral by the time Brittany and Cameron were picked as winners. About a month later, the Costa Rican government released its 2011 tourism figures, which posted strong annual growth, and The Costa Rica Star reported on the campaign. Less than two weeks later, a Miami couple won a vacation package after Brian McGuinn threw his wife’s wedding ring in the trash by accident. Brian enacted the “needle in the haystack” expression and methodically waded through tons of garbage to get his wife’s wedding ring back. Their award was announced on television by a CBS network affiliate in South Florida.
Success and Room for Improvement
Compared to the tourism marketing campaigns of countries such as Colombia and Peru, the Million Dollar Gift of Happiness was a simple affair -yet extremely effective. It was rather light on Twitter engagement, an interesting fact that echoes the social media usage patterns in Costa Rica, where Facebook is king and Twitter plays second -if not third or fourth- fiddle.
The work performed by 22squared was astounding, but the ending was a little abrupt. ICT could have further capitalized on the campaign by keeping it alive with fresh content and more active engagement, something which has subsided as of late. If anything, ICT should have been prepared with lots of tourism-related content to keep riding the social media momentum realized by 22squared.
A step in the right direction is EnviroMixer, ICT’s first step into the world of mobile app publishing and marketing. With EnviroMixer, iPhone and iPad users can mix the sounds of toucans, howler monkeys and other native species with atmospheric backdrops of volcanoes, rain, crashing surf, or whale calls. The mixes can be shared online. Efforts such as EnviroMixer can go a long way towards maintaining interest in Costa Rica as the ultimate tourism brand.
The Pursuit of Happiness; Its Detractors and Naysayers
Happiness isn’t always contagious. There are those who disparage the Million Dollar Gift of Happiness campaign and the Happy Planet Index as gimmicky, particularly since happiness isn’t specially quantifiable by scientific methods. Some say that well-being is far from empirical and highly subjective. Others get straight to the point, calling attention to our suffocating bureaucracy, circus politics, growing crime figures, low salaries, the unhappy lives of Nicaraguan immigrants, sketchy highway infrastructure, dwindling quality of public health, dismal local television programming… the list could go on and on.
The Happy Planet Index gets it right: how people interact with Gaia (the living Earth) is a vital aspect of well-being. Happiness doesn’t just happen to Ticos; it is rather earned at a sloth-like pace. Costa Rica is a giving nation, and Ticos love her for it, but the happiness she bestows must be cultivated and embraced. Writing for Psychology Today, psychiatrist Judith Lipton, M.D. has set out to investigate the mystery of Tico happiness. As the Million Dollar Gift of Happiness campaign was in full swing, she wrote that life in Costa Rica is “a little more like the South Bronx than Marin County.” A fair analogy, and she continues by writing that: “Yet people are happy here. I am happy here!”
Dr. Lipton isn’t the only one happy. Consider our own author Nadine Hays Pisani, who is Happier Than A Billionaire and has eloquently written about it. Or Steve Murphy, the Canadian man who recently hit a lotto jackpot worth millions; his first thought was coming here on vacation.
The construct of happiness is elusive when it is individualized to extremes. George Washington explained it better:
“It is the peculiar boast of our country, that her happiness is alone dependent on the collective wisdom and virtue of her citizens, and rests not on the exertions of any individual.”