Noel Toolan arrives in London later this week from Dublin, on a mission. The international marketing director at the Irish Tourist Board/Bord FÃÂ¡ilte is looking for an advertising agency to help him create an all-Ireland brand to sell to international tourists.
It is one of the most politically sensitive marketing campaigns imaginable for a country split in two by a 73-year-old border – where a war has raged for 25 years on the northern side. And where the peace of the past 15 months remains fragile.
Creating a single identity or brand for the whole island is a political no-no for Northern unionists – many of whom remain opposed to the wider talks being demanded to kick-start the “Peace Process” – and who would see the development as further evidence of a united Ireland “by the backdoor”.
That makes it very difficult for the Northern Irish Tourist Board (NITB) to play anything other than an observer’s role in the development of Toolan’s international marketing plan.
It is a blueprint to create a single brand positioning for tourism for the whole island, based on a 17-country research project which measured consumer perceptions of the island. From the research, Bord FÃÂ¡ilte has drawn up a proposal for brand positioning which has at its core the “emotional experience” of Ireland – the people.
From that core Toolan hopes to develop a portfolio of brands to reflect regional opportunities and the other attractions Ireland has to offer, from the music to the 250m of investment in golf.
“The campaign has been discussed with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and it is considering its position,” says one Dublin source. “But even if it agrees to support the campaign the board will have to sell the idea that it makes sense to co-operate with the South to local vested interests.
“Some of those interests could hijack the whole plan and so everybody still talks in vague terms about ‘projects’ and ‘initiatives’,” he adds.
Toolan is drawing up a list of agencies, both global and Irish, to handle a worldwide advertising brief estimated to be worth more than 7m in its first year.
The only definite name on the list is the London office of J Walter Thompson, which handles Bord FÃÂ¡ilte’s 1.4m UK account. This will continue in tandem with the new programme for at least the first year.
There is an explicitly northern element to the brief. “This is a process which has accelerated in the past six months,” says Toolan. “There is a need to look at Irish tourism as a consumer brand and establish its direction. We cannot sit back.” Toolan would like to appoint an agency early next year and have creative work to roll out in the middle of 1996.
The importance of tourism to the Republic of Ireland underlines how significant Toolan’s plans are. Last year, 3.6 million overseas tourists visited the Republic, outnumbering the domestic population of 3.5 million. They contributed almost 2.2bn to the economy – an 89 per cent increase in just six years. Predictions are based on attracting not just more, but higher spending tourists.
Toolan admits that the issue of an all-Ireland campaign remains controversial. “We have to tread carefully. The consumer research shows that overseas people see no difference between the two states and ‘The Troubles’ are no longer a deterrent to visiting. Based on these two elements, an all-Ireland marketing campaign makes sense but the NITB has to be careful.”
NITB marketing director Paul Lavery has acted as an observer in the development of the programme. He says that the board will take a decision early next year about a more permanent involvement once it has seen some creative work.
“We are monitoring and evaluating the project as it unfolds,” says Lavery. “But if the NITB is to participate, the regional strengths of Northern Ireland will have to be reflected in the creative proposition.”
The NITB has an international marketing budget of only 200,000 and even in the UK it spends less than 400,000. It still uses a pre-ceasefire advertising campaign created by The Leith Agency in Edinburgh which has run in Scotland, Wales and the North of England: “You’ll never know unless you go”. The campaign has never run nationally and some observers believe that the NITB is too nervous to make the quantum leap that the new international campaign represents.
Lavery argues that any decision will be based on commercial rather than political considerations. “In international marketing terms, the total of the two parts [of Ireland] is a stronger proposition than each on its own but the crux is that the diversity and complexity of Ireland – North and South – has to come through. We are comfortable and happy to work together to promote the island as a whole so long as it is in our commercial interests to do so. It does not pose a serious political risk.”
A precedent for joint action already exists. The Overseas Tourism Marketing Initiative (OTMI) was launched earlier this year, with a 6.3m budget courtesy of the tourist industries on both sides of the border, the Irish and British Governments and the European Union.
Although OTMI is officially an industry initiative, it is co-ordinated by Bord FÃÂ¡ilte and the expectation, at least in Dublin, is that its work will eventually be folded into the new international marketing programme.
The logical conclusion of that programme is not just a single identity for Irish tourism, but a single body to co-ordinate it. Some believe the NITB is being invited to co-operate in its own suicide.
“A single tourist authority would be a matter for other people to determine,” says Lavery diplomatically, “I think it is unlikely, but we can work on joint projects.”
The ability of the two sides to work together will determine whether Toolan is successful or whether he is taking on mission impossible.