Rebranding Hunterdon County as a Top-of-Mind Tourism Destination

The Red Mill - Hunterdon County

By Jennifer Barr, Ph.D., Professor of Business Studies, Marketing

Jennifer Barr

Jennifer Barr, Ph.D.,
Professor of Business Studies, Marketing

Hunterdon County is renowned for its historic roots, majestic beauty and small-town charm. The Delaware River Towns and seven main streets are major draws. Situated in the Skylands region of northwest New Jersey and flanked by the Delaware River and Pennsylvania, the area is easily accessible by car from New York and Pennsylvania. The country escape destination appeals to both day trippers and overnight guests. Although abundant in gems that include rolling farms, a legendary river, beautiful countryside, exceptional winery and dining experiences, sophisticated and tranquil lodgings, and an artisan culture, it has struggled to be a top-of-mind tourism destination in a uniquely competitive space. Decline in tourism dollars and lack of a concerted effort to formally promote the region were the impetus for the third phase of a LIGHT study that focused on strategy, branding, social media and multi-generational marketing. Drawing more visitors to the region was also identified as pivotal to enticing younger demographics to live and raise a family in the area.

The three-phase study was commissioned by the Hunterdon County Board of County Commissioners and funded through a grant by the New Jersey Highlands Council. The Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce, Hunterdon County Office of Economic Development and the Delaware River Towns Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau championed the effort. This is a synopsis of the final phase of the study and was drawn from the findings of the previous phases as well as extensive secondary research, anecdotal evidence from social media/customer reviews, on-site research that included interviews with a variety of business owners/operators from several Hunterdon County municipalities, and numerous exchanges with a representative from the Hunterdon County Economic Development Commission.

It was determined that a four-pronged approach was needed to effectively market and elevate awareness of Hunterdon County. First, crafting an umbrella brand strategy would project a solid identity for the tourism region. An integrated marketing communications approach that prioritized simplicity, clarity and consistency was recommended. Second, it was observed that the region lacked a high-tech, high-touch experience for travelers. A tourism website and entry portal managed by a dedicated destination marketing organization (DMO) was deemed essential for establishing and managing a uniform brand image and all related activities. It would also legitimize the region as a year-round tourism destination with multiple offerings. Third, a stellar social media program, remarkable advertising and elegant collateral materials were suggested to reinforce the effort and attract various market segments. Fourth, for the initiative to succeed, it was emphasized that all towns and individual businesses should be wedded to the idea and willing to subsume current marketing activities into the Hunterdon County brand. It was conveyed that building brand equity is a long-term process that would require substantial commitment as well as the pooling of talent and resources. 

Technological advancements (digital, mobile) and visitors’ values and expectations (social movements like farm-to-table, authentic local experiences) are overarching influences in destination marketing today. This is consistent with some of the top pre-pandemic travel trends including weekend trips and short getaways, food tourism, families seeking adventure and the impact of the Instagram platform. Hunterdon County’s offerings mirrored most of the shifts as did notable DMO models like 1Berkshire and DiscoverLancaster. A palpable difference was that the latter two had an established brand image that permeated the respective websites, social media platforms and other forms of promotion. The findings for two of Hunterdon County’s primary competitors, VisitBucksCounty and TravelHudsonValley, were similar.

Hunterdon County has an abundance of brand assets that have delighted customers who return regularly to the area. Brand storytelling opportunities are intrinsic to the region and some examples include the Red Mill Museum renaissance, the Ironbound agro-tourism model and the ArtYard community-minded project. There are many meaningful, compelling reasons for visiting Hunterdon County, and it was recognized that customer testimonials and social influencers would be pivotal to shaping the brand through word-of-mouth.


Hunterdon County Main Streets Screen Capture

Screenshot from

Potential brand themes that emerged were arts and culture, agro-tourism, great outdoors, scenic and historic, artisan, rural charm, rustic and vintage, and hiking and biking. The selection of five or six of these options would afford ample opportunities for theme-related destination packages. It was recommended that thirty-second virtual tour videos for each be included in all forms of digital media to entice prospects, ideally accompanied by an app. And once established, brand communities would gel and grow organically through customer testimonials and social influencers. There were also several annual events revolving around seasons and holidays in Hunterdon County that could be easily inserted into a “10 things to do list” or a monthly online calendar of events. As an avenue to raising awareness about the tourism destination and, ultimately, repeat visitors, it was recommended that two regional events be organized each year. Possibilities included an Octoberfest and a “Welcome to Summer” celebration.

Understanding life stage marketing and tracking segments as they transition generationally is also crucial to a tourism model that is sustainable. Travel preferences and habits change during the various life stages, and DMOs must monitor and anticipate to capitalize on such shifts. On-site interviews with business owners indicated that Millennials were an untapped market possibly because they rely so heavily on technology to research and commit to a destination. They often travel with groups of friends and their lodging preference is Airbnb or great outdoors excursions. Given such travel predispositions as well as the inadequate and expensive lodging in Hunterdon County, it was suggested that Airbnb hosts be secured. In addition to life stage and generation, two other notable segmentation criteria emerged; namely, usage patterns (frequency of visit, length of visit) and destination purpose. Metrics and analytics should be used to develop target market profiles, track usage habits and predict behavior so tailored packages and programs can be created.

Recent correspondence from a former representative of the Hunterdon County Economic Development Commission indicated that some of the recommended strategies have been implemented. The newly launched Hunterdon County 579 trail and Hunterdon Main Streets sites entice visitors through bold, crisp, oversized visuals, and the web designs easily navigate users through the wide variety of destination themes and offerings. There are also links to several social media sites (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) which is essential for digital cross-pollination and increasing virality. Clearly, Hunterdon County has taken important steps in establishing its tourism region as a viable competitor among other country escape destinations.

Dr. Jennifer Barr's marketing consultation for Hunterdon County, NJ was completed in 2019 as part of a multi-phase project exploring the economic impact, visitor profile and marketing needs of the region's tourism industry.