The tourism industry is forecasted to contribute more than $2.6 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product by 2027. According to Vermont’s Tourism Office, the Ben & Jerry’s factory is the most popular tourist attraction in the state, welcoming more than 300,000 visitors every year. Remember the Kentucky sinkhole that swallowed eight Corvettes in 2014? In 2016, the National Corvette Museum was well on the road to recovery and welcomed 228,363 visitors. (More on that sinkhole later.) With so many attractions and destinations to choose from, why are corporate museums and brand heritage tourism proving so popular?

This is a photograph of corvettes displayed outside the National Corvette Museum.
Image: National Corvette Museum

Millennials. As brand management professional Roger Dudler explained, “Millennials are relentless and obsessive in their quest for authenticity. They are all about pulling back the curtain, going backstage, hanging out in the green room, viewing the raw footage. . . . In other words, they want the real story. And smart brands are giving it to them.” While increasing in popularity, brand heritage tourism isn’t a new concept. Kohler has operated a factory tour since 1926, showcasing the company’s historic headquarters, artists’ studios, the foundry, and the brass and pottery factories.

Interest in the process behind consumers’ favorite brands compels people to travel thousands of miles to watch a Harley-Davidson come off of the assembly line, or sip a whiskey in Jack Daniel’s Distillery (the first registered distillery in the United States). As John M.T. Balmer of Brunel Business School contends, “Corporate heritage brands are stable reference points in a changing world [that] can harness positive public emotions. . . . Customers value heritage.”

If customers value heritage, then heritage adds value to a brand. Brand heritage tourism occurs when companies recognize the desire for customers to connect with their brand on another level and then capitalize on that interest. But what makes a site “tourist-worthy”? Loyalty and authenticity. Thousands of people visit Pendleton’s plant in Washougal, Washington, each year to see how raw wool is processed and ultimately made into the heritage brand’s clothing and homewares. “What’s great about [Pendleton] is the tradition,” said Karen Axelrod, author of Watch It Made in the U.S.A. “There’s a lot of history and loyalty to that brand.”

Pendleton’s 150-year history and loyal customer base help drive interest in the company’s brand heritage tourism. But what about younger corporations or corporations not typically considered “heritage brands”? How can a tech brand established in 1975 establish a “tourist-worthy” site? At the Microsoft Visitor Center in Redmond, Washington, you’ll “experience a glimpse into the future, balanced with a nod to the past. You’ll see the latest from Microsoft Artificial Intelligence + Research and the very first personal computer—and the history of innovation in between.” Microsoft shares its story with visitors by providing an overview of the company’s history of innovation as well as a glimpse into future products and services. While the visitor center is free, there is ample opportunity for visitors to walk away with a piece of Microsoft at The Company Store.

There are opportunities beyond brand heritage tourism to leverage corporate history. Many factory tours and corporate museums forgo ticket revenue by offering free admission but also have a gift shop—like any good tourist destination. From Microsoft’s Company Store to Jelly Belly’s store where you can pick up a bag of the famous Belly Flops®, corporations are monetizing their brand heritage.

Previously, I wrote about Louisville Slugger. Louisville Slugger successfully works purpose into its branding, and its brand heritage tourism efforts are also extraordinary. Admission to the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory entitles you to a tour of the factory floor as well as entrance to a museum “filled with remarkable memorabilia and entertaining interactive exhibits.” Each person takes home their own miniature bat as a souvenir. There’s also plenty of opportunity to purchase and personalize branded merchandise in the museum store.

Back to the sinkhole. On the second anniversary of the catastrophic sinkhole, the National Corvette Museum opened an exhibit called “Corvette Cave-In.” The display tells the story of what happened, why it happened, and how the museum recovered. The museum’s library and archives serve as a repository for “all materials documenting the past, present and future of Corvette” as well as provide a revenue stream through research services and sales. Corvette enthusiasts can buy an original Corvette dealer brochure, reproduction window stickers, or the “build sheet” for any Corvette assembled in the nearby Bowling Green since the GM plant opened in1981.

Brand heritage tourism can help corporations offer transparency to consumers while providing brands with yet another revenue stream and opportunity for growth. Beyond opening up factory floors and displaying company history, corporations are developing archives to provide licensing opportunities. Leveraging a brand’s history and loyal customer base are the key components of a successful brand heritage tourist site. Younger corporations may rely more heavily on brand loyalty to attract interest and visitors, while a more established company has the artifacts and the stories to draw people in. Every corporation has a story worth sharing. Contact us if you are interested in learning how to assemble and preserve your heritage assets and tell your authentic story.

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