'Brand Ireland' should be rethought and replaced

Fri, Jul 27, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:An intriguing proposal for improving our national brand would position Ireland in a very different light

WE TAKE national pride in the belief that we punch above our weight on the global stage. There is indeed evidence that “brand Ireland” is known and loved the world over and that this favourable image has made a significant contribution to our economy.

Recent studies of nation brand image, however, suggest that changing geopolitical trends could weaken that image. Economic power is moving eastward and our diaspora history is of receding relevance, even in the US. There is also evidence that younger people around the world are less favourably disposed to us than older generations.

The most ambitious attempt to measure the thorny concept of a nation’s global brand image is the awkwardly named Anholt-Gfk Roper Nation Brand Index. Some 20,000 people are interviewed every year in 20 countries about their perceptions of 50 different nations, including Ireland.

Perceptions are polled concerning exports, governance, culture, people, tourism and immigration/investment. When all the scores are grouped together to form an overall nation brand index, Ireland is ranked in 18th position:

1 US

2 Germany

3 UK

4 France

5 Japan

6 Canada

7 Italy

8 Australia

9 Switzerland

10 Sweden

11 Spain

12 Holland

13 Austria

14 New Zealand

15 Scotland

16 Denmark

17 Finland

18 Ireland

19 Belgium

20 Brazil

This should be cause for some celebration given our size. Our “brand” or international reputation doesn’t qualify for the top 10 but it puts us in the “second tier”. We are ahead of Belgium, Brazil and Russia although somewhat disappointingly we trail Scotland, which is in 15th position.

This result confirms what many have suggested in the past: that we are better known and more positively rated compared to other countries than our size would indicate.

Perceptions of countries change glacially and much of the talk of Ireland’s reputational damage overseas is simply misplaced. While the financial and political elites of the world may indulge in a bout of Schadenfreude over the demise of the Celtic Tiger, the opinion of the world’s population – the people who consume our goods and visit us as tourists – has not deteriorated one iota.

What Ireland has been known for and loved for in the eyes of the world over many decades remains true today, whether we like it or not. It is natural beauty that is most associated with Ireland, followed by a welcoming friendly people. The tourist image of Ireland is the one that dominates the perception of the country around the globe.

Our lowest ranking is for “exports”, which assesses whether the origin of a product or service is likely to increase or decrease people’s propensity to purchase it. Although we are one of the world’s leading exporters on a per capita basis, few of the goods and services that leave the country reach the end consumer with strongly identified Irish branding.

The notable exceptions are in the food and drink sector where brands such as Jameson and Kerrygold do well. These brands show the potential to evolve our image into the future as more environmentally conscious consumers in developed world markets are attracted to the benefits of Ireland’s sustainable, green image.

One of the consequences of annual surveys such as this is a heightened awareness of national branding in the worldwide competition for tourism, foreign direct investment and exports. Countries who take the issue seriously will be seeking to devise strategies for improving their rankings.

This survey shows that Ireland’s image is strongest in the English-speaking world, the UK, US, Australia and in some continental European countries, including France and Germany.

However, we perform less well among the world’s fastest-growing nations: India, Russia, Mexico and Turkey. Even more alarming is that our stock is highest among the older age cohorts and lowest among the youngest. If these trends are allowed to continue our global standing will decline over time.

Nation brand images are far more difficult to manage than commercial brands.

Marketing communication campaigns on their own are much less effective and they must be preceded by a focused, long-term, policy-driven strategy underpinned by tangible initiatives.

The author of the report, Simon Anholt, suggests one such route for us: “One could well imagine Ireland succeeding in ‘positioning’ itself as the society and the economy that first finds light at the end of the post-Washington Consensus tunnel, the first country to pilot and prove a new form of capitalism – more moral, more fair, more balanced, more human.”

This intriguing proposal would undoubtedly position Ireland in a very different light. But at a time when we are preoccupied with the troika and the continuing perilous state of the euro, it would be asking a lot of a political and administrative elite who have always been more comfortable with the concrete than the conceptual.

JOHN FANNINGis a lecturer at UCD’s business school and author of The Importance of Being Branded: an Irish Perspective. MARK HENRYis the central marketing director of Tourism Ireland.

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