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A giant step in selling Ireland

WHEN Bill Clinton switched on the Christmas lights in Belfast last week, he symbolised a new international image for a troubled land.

It is a new image that Noel Toolan, the international marketing director at the Irish Tourist Board/Bord Failte, is seeking to exploit worldwide. Mr Toolan is currently hunting for an advertising agency to help him to 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 and where the peace of the last 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 would see the development as further evidence of a united Ireland "by the backdoor".

That makes it very difficult for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) to play anything other than an observer's role in the development of Mr Toolan's international marketing plan.

The blueprint to create a single brand for tourism is based on the findings of a 17-country research project, which measured consumer perceptions of the island. From the research, Bord Failte has drawn up a proposal for brand positioning that has at its core the "emotional experience" of Ireland - basically the people. From that core, Mr Toolan hopes to develop a portfolio of brands that reflect regional opportunities and other attributes of Ireland - from its music to the pounds 250m of investment in golf facilities.

"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 NITB 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'."

Mr Toolan is drawing up a list of agencies, Irish and global, to handle a worldwide advertising brief estimated to be worth more than pounds 7m in its first year. It will be funded by the Government, business and the European Union.

The only definite name on the list is the London office of J Walter Thompson, which handles Bord Failte's existing pounds 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 last six months," says Mr Toolan. "Here is a need to look at Irish tourism as a consumer brand and establish its future direction. We cannot sit back." Mr Toolan will 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 the significance of Mr Toolan's plans. Last year, 3.6 million overseas tourists visited the Republic, outnumbering the domestic population of 3.5m people for the first time. They contributed almost pounds 2.2bn to the economy, an 89 per cent increase in just six years. Future predictions are based on attracting not just more, but higher spending, tourists.

But Mr Toolan stresses 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' as a deterrent to visiting have evaporated. Based on these two things, an all-Ireland marketing campaign makes sense, but the NITB has to be careful."

Paul Lavery, NITB's marketing director, has acted as an observer in the development of the programme and says that the board will take a decision early next year about a more permanent involvement once it has seen some creative work.

The NITB has an international marketing budget of just pounds 200,000 and even in the UK it spends less than pounds 400,000. Some observers believe that the NITB is too nervous to make the quantum leap that the new international campaign represents.

A precedent for joint action already exists. The Overseas Tourism Marketing Initiative (OTMI) was launched earlier this year with a pounds 6.3m budget from the tourist industries on both sides of the border, the Irish and British governments, and the European Union.