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But how has such a small country as ours achieved this? My answer has just been published.
Ireland has a strong nation brand for a small place. Despite having a population of just 5 million people, surveys consistently place the country amongst the ‘teens’ of most positively considered nation brands on the planet. What has Ireland done to deserve such high billing?
My analysis of the development of Ireland’s national image has been published today in a new book, Nation Branding in Europe.
I support the argument that Ireland’s image emerged in its present form at the end of the 19th century as a result of a conscious effort by Gaelic revivalists, in particular W.B. Yeats, to create an ‘ancient’, ‘natural’, ‘social’ and ‘spiritual’ image that distinguished it from contemporary, industrial Britain. The proposition was enthusiastically adopted and nourished by political leaders after the attainment of independence in 1922.
The image resonated well amongst the Irish diaspora. They became brand ambassadors, spreading the word of this old Ireland through their communities in Britain, America and further afield. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this well-ingrained image has been slow to evolve over the years. Ireland’s highest ranked individual attributes on the Nations Brand Index survey today are ‘natural beauty’ and ‘welcoming people’ – just as they would have been in the 1922 Index, had it been around.
The development of our national brand since the 1920s could be deemed ‘organic’. There is no pan-sectoral national promotional agency or advertising campaign to centrally manage it; yet it has proved extraordinarily successful in delivering social and economic benefit where it matters. This has been through the adoption of sectoral branding approaches that have driven standout growth in tourism, in food and drink production, and in foreign direct investment.
Each of these sectors has benefited from the country’s historic brand image. Tourism and food production leverage rural imagery to great effect, and our people are central to the country’s competitive advantage in attracting FDI. However, the national promotional agency for each sector has adopted a sophisticated sectoral approach, sustained over many years, to influencing their discrete target audiences to choose Ireland or Irish produce over those of other locations.
The historical image may have served the country well, however its ability to survive unaltered for another century appears challenged.
Our Anglo-centric diaspora proved enormously advantageous as the United States became the preeminent economic power of the 20th century and provided Ireland with her greatest single source of FDI and of tourism revenue. The economic growth of Asia in the 21st century will dilute this advantage and will require the country to develop much greater levels of brand recognition in places in which it currently has little currency.
Furthermore, surveys show that even in diaspora nations, our positive image is strongest amongst older cohorts and weakest amongst the youngest. There is a job to be done to shore up positive perceptions in these traditional markets to ensure they remain equally strong advocates into the future, and therefore as strong a source of investment and export earnings.
The historical image is also increasingly out of touch with today’s reality. Although we remain more rural than most European nations, nevertheless Ireland is a predominantly urban country nowadays with a GDP per capita that exceeds nearly every European peer. Our international image is, therefore, increasingly incongruous and too narrow to reflect the diversity of modern Ireland.
You cannot change a country image by merely advertising something different though. A country becomes associated with something new through innovative policy action taken over a long period.
If we want to boost Ireland’s cultural associations, for example, then we need to take periodic symbolic actions to support cultural activity that capture the imagination of publics overseas and embody the change in image we are seeking to make. Taking action again and again over decades builds the association between the new domain and the country, augmenting the image that people previously had of the place.
So what do we want Ireland to be best known for in the century ahead?