Place Branding and Marketing in Ireland

Today, Ireland’s Sunday Business Show on Today FM (presented by Cónáll O’ Morian) had a special feature on place marketing and branding. I was invited to contribute to a panel discussion along with Joanne Grehan, CEO of Mayo County Enterprise, Paul Keyes CEO of Team Sligo and Eoghan Predergast who is leading the marketing of Limerick. This blog takes a look at current place marketing activities in Ireland.

Mayo County Enterprises is behind “Recipes for success: The business of food“, an initiative to create a county level food vision.

Team Sligo is a Chamber of Commerce movement to promote enterprise and tourism and Sligo as “a location for new, expanding and relocating businesses” and by 2014 aims to be the most improved destination in Ireland for visitor numbers. It’s slogan is “Sligo: set your spirit free”.

Finally, the Limerick Marketing Company aims to double visitor numbers and income as Ireland’s first dedicated place marketing company. The marketing of Limerick is a strategic objective of the Limerick 2030 spatial and economic plan.

Whilst these organisations, partnerships or initiatives may be relatively new, the process of promoting places “has been, practiced consciously or unconsciously for as long as cities have competed with each other” (Kavaratzis, 2008). Ever since roads, canals, railways have linked towns and cities together they have competed to attract people and investment. Even whole nations have marketed themselves to attract population (like Canada and Australia) – just look at the emigration poster from 1948 below.

At first, from looking at the literature available on the Web, Team Sligo seemed to take a traditional approach to place marketing – in that it aims to attract investment (both mobile and fixed) to the area – it’s focus is external and transactional – new visitors, new businesses – attract them in, then attract some more. More contemporary place marketing is less about this type of exogenous development and more about endogenous growth, developing the place product through internal resources – growing businesses, up or re-skilling the workforce etc. It was good to hear that Sligo also recognises the importance of “grass roots integration” and during the programme Paul made it clear that future success was going to come from more successful partnership working amongst the existing stakeholders who voluntarily want to make Sligo better.

Both types of development are referred to explicitly in the Limerick 2030 vision for both foreign direct investment and “endogenous business growth”. Eoghan referred to the complexity of place marketing and the multi-dimensional nature of place. Whilst Limerick wants to re-brand around the principles of being “authentic, innovative and progressive” this seems to be an ‘organising principle’ (Kavaratzis, again), to encourage stakeholders to be part of the change process, rather than a constraining strap-line.

Likewise, the Mayo food vision is being created by local people and businesses – the collectivisation of the various parts of the ‘product’ being the first and most crucial step. However, like the other place marketing initiatives discussed today there is a preoccupation with making money out of place initiatives. This is explicit in Mayo’s “Recipes for success: The business of food”. But food is more than a business, and so are places.

Critics of place marketing and branding see the adoption of business principles as the creeping commodification of place. “Places are being increasingly packaged around a series of real or imaginary cultural traditions and representations” (Hall, 1997). So food could be promoted at the expense of other traditions, such as music or things which cannot be so easily sold such as folklore or story-telling.

As Cónáll pointed out, many places are ‘competing’ against each other but with exactly the same offer – food, culture, creativity etc. and a word that came up a lot in our discussion was ‘authentic’. Place marketing and branding has to accurately represent the place product. Otherwise it is just empty rhetoric.

On the whole, the three initiatives we discussed today reflect a shift away from rhetoric and towards reality. Place marketing and branding is finally becoming more substantive and about time! The idea that slogans, iconic buildings or a few more tourists, on their own, can change the fortunes of a place in decline is rather desperate. Nevertheless, a lot of place marketing activity is publicly funded – so we should continue to be vigilant and ensure the local people that fund these initiatives get a suitable return on their investment.

You can download a podcast of the programme here.