Irishness for sale

 

WHEN WE think of Ireland Inc, there are a few key brands and personas that immediately come to mind. Baileys Irish Cream and Guinness, U2 and Colin Farrell, Temple Bar and Munster Rugby – all national phenomena with international appeal and recognition, writes Brian O'Connell

Waterford Wedgwood is one leading brand which has been flying the flag for Ireland globally for generations. The company is now in administration – highlighting how Irish brands can’t rest on their longevity in these troubled times.

Irish marketing has shifted dramatically during the boom years. The traditional image of the Emerald Isle as a land of green fields and shamrocks has changed. Trendy developments in our cities and a more sophisticated society are more associated with Ireland as a new national branding emerged.

Some sectors have struggled to keep up with the shifting demographic. In our tourism sector the traditional thatch cottage, so long an international symbol of Ireland, held little credence in the boom years.

For over two centuries, Waterford Crystal was about as Irish as it gets, but in the end being Irish was not enough to ensure the continued commercial success of the company.

So does being “green” count for anything, anymore?

Gerard Tannam, brand director with a company called Island Bridge, believes that tradition is not enough to sustain consumer interest. Products need to step up to the shifting marketplace and Irish brands are no different.

“Brands can often talk about themselves as being part of a tradition with a sense of entitlement, especially if the brand is made according to a particular craft or process. But the owner of the brand doesn’t decide if it is relevant – the customer does,” he explains.

It’s not entirely the brand’s fault. The rules of engagement have changed and some brands were not needed anymore as Ireland Inc underwent corporate makeover.

“To be Irish once meant to be somehow rural and to have a certain cultural background,” says Tannam. “What has happened in the last 20 years is that the meaning of Irishness has become a lot more substantial. It’s not just about being old-fashioned and friendly in an innocent way. Irishness still stands for a certain degree of sociability and an ability to connect easily. It stands for humour and quick-wittedness.”

There are now many different ways to be Irish, and some brands are very successful in terms of marketing or promoting different types of Irishness, says Tannam.

“U2 is a global brand which always draws on a particular Irishness. Munster rugby does so too by representing an intensity and professionalism born out of a sense of place and camaraderie. Most of all, though, brands need to remain as relevant as possible to a contemporary audience – and that’s where many of them fail.”

Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing Magazine, says the intrinsic characteristicsof what constitutes brand Ireland are still the same. It’s how we market those characteristics to a more discerning and more knowledgeable consumer base that has changed.

“Waterford Crystal tried to make themselves more appealing by efforts such as the John Rocha range, but, at end of the day, the product was seen as something older customers collected and that people of a certain generation gave for wedding presents. The strength the brand had was that it was based on a different culture.”

Cullen says brand Ireland has to appeal to a more youthful market and contemporise its image.

“We’re not playing on the old leprechaun or shamrock image any more,” says Cullen, “Brands need to appeal to a more youthful market. Irish tourist agencies are portraying a more contemporary image of Ireland. They’re looking at areas of interest to people rather than tired old cliches.”

Yet, when you strip away the alluring packaging and snazzy advertising campaigns, the key way brand Ireland can remain relevant is by focusing on product.

“Marketing can only do so much at the end of a day,” says Cullen, “If service or product doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s not going to make that much of a difference how we market it.”

Aer Lingus

For some, nothing says “Eire” quite like a green-uniformed air hostess and overpriced Irish breakfast on board an Aer Lingus flight. Last year, those iconic symbols looked in danger, as the company floated the idea of outsourcing cabin crew and services in an effort to cut costs and retain competitiveness. Ryanair’s ambitions to take over Aer Lingus has shareholders and government currently considering their offer.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary assured the nation the Aer Lingus brand would be safe in his hands, but Ryanair’s desire, coupled with an increasingly difficult environment for independent carriers, might make it only a matter of time before this Irish brand is redefined.

The Cliffs of Moher

While Ireland’s most-visited tourist spot attracted almost one million visitors in 2007, management at the site expect a decrease of about 14 per cent in 2008. The location still has huge international appeal, however, with visitors from as far afield as Uganda, Brazil and Slovakia, and increasing numbers from emerging markets such as China, India and Japan. An added visitor centre this year helped bring the visitor experience in line with 21st-century expectations.

Meanwhile, the Cliffs continue to feature strongly in both tourist literature and advertising by Irish brands such as Guinness, Riverdance, Irish Mist and AIB. In 2007, NBC’s Today Showfeatured the Cliffs of Moher; the live breakfast TV show was broadcast to over six million US viewers. The Cliffs were last week picked to represent Ireland in a bid to find the new seven wonders of nature, chosen following an online public vote. A spokesperson said: “We are anticipating a challenging year ahead in the tourism industry in general but the Cliffs of Moher will always be at the top of visitors’ ‘must see’ list.”

Riverdance

Hard to believe it’s almost 15 years since a troupe of Irish step dancers took the Eurovision song contest by storm. The seven-minute performance probably did as much for Irish cultural tourism as decades of government policy and initiatives. Riverdance the Showcontinues to tour nationally and internationally, with three versions of the show currently on the road, although a farewell UK tour is in the offing for 2009. As academic PJ Mathews has pointed out, “Bill Whelan’s Riverdance has become the stable signifier of a complex cultural moment.”

Some commentators have pointed out that the version of Irish dancing promoted globally by Riverdancehas been harmful to other homogenised variations of the art form. For the rest of us, the important thing is that Riverdancehas made it okay to be associated with Irish dancing, bringing sexy back to an age-old format.

Guinness

Following a few rocky years, with uncertainty over Guinness’s historic St James’s Gate brewing site and the closure of plants in Kilkenny and Dundalk, there was talk at one point that Diageo might move the whole brewing operation to the UK. God forbid. The plans have been parked for now.

Last year was a good one for Diageo, with sales up 2.3 per cent in Ireland for the first half of the year, bucking a decline of 7 per cent the previous year. The figures would seem to indicate that, despite the financial turmoil, a pint of plain is still your only man.

Internationally, the product continues to go from strength to strength, with a 6 per cent rise in sales in Africa, and a 3 per cent rise in Europe. On St Patrick’s Day 2006, more Guinness was sold in Canada than in Ireland, making the country one of the fastest-growing Guinness draught markets in the world.

Kerrygold

Its marketing hook calls it “a true taste of Ireland” and, ever since it was launched in the UK in 1962, Kerrygold has been as much about green hills, charming villages, buttercups and daisies as it is about butter. Suggested names for the brand included Leprechaun and Tub-o-Gold, before the Irish Diary Board settled on Kerrygold. It is now sold in over 60 countries, and does especially well in Germany, where it enjoys 13 per cent of the market share.

A spokesperson said: “With some market share lost in the recent economic downturn and 2009 expected to be a tough year, Kerrygold will continue to search for, and concentrate on, new markets such as Russia, Poland and other eastern European countries, Africa and the US.”