Inside Business: A punt on the green pound

Companies are zooming in on the Irish community with the launch of a new TV station. Meg Carter reports
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They are the largest minority in Britain, yet little attempt has been made to target the estimated 6 million first and second-generation Irish living here. Until now, that is. For with the launch this week of Britain's first Irish TV station, TARA Television, and two Irish groups vying for London's latest commercial radio licence, business is waking up to a market.

Proof of how far "Irishness" has permeated contemporary British culture comes in the latest commercial for Holsten Pils. In the ad, created by Gold Greenless Trott, American comedian Dennis Leary parodies the growing enthusiasm for the Emerald Isle in a direct attack on the popularity of Irish stout.

However, many companies now see tangible business benefits in targeting the "green pound" - that is, disposable income held by the Irish in Britain and those non-Irish with an interest in Ireland.

The latest Irish Trade Board statistics reveal that Irish exports to Britain rose 9 per cent between 1994 and 1995, from Irpounds 5,669m (pounds 5,661m) to Irpounds 6,155m (excluding Northern Ireland). The figure looks set to rise given the growing popularity of Irish culture fuelled by the success of Riverdance, the West End show.

The international market for Irish themed pubs and beer goes from strength to strength, and tax breaks for film makers have encouraged more movies to be shot in Ireland, stimulating growing international interest. Meanwhile, telecoms operators report that calls to and from Ireland represent the UK's fourth busiest route for international calls.

The Irish Tourist Board says 2.3 million British people visited Ireland in 1995, spending Irpounds 50lm - a 12 per cent rise. Growth for 1996-7 is expected to continue at a similar rate. British Tourist Authority figures reveal a similar trend: 1.8 million Irish people visited the UK in 1995.

John Brown, a spokesman for the Irish Tourist Board, says increased competition has made travel cheaper and raised standards, and low inflation and a strong Irish economy have encouraged investment. In 1988, investment in tourist facilities was Irpounds 30m; since 1989, the annual figure has exceeded Irpounds 150m. The breakdown of the ceasefire has had a negative effect but the trend remains upwards.

"There has been a massive upsurge in interest in Irish arts, sports and culture over the past 10 years," says David Fitzgerald, the managing director of TARA. Why? "The Irish are far more mobile today, moving around the UK and Europe by choice rather than necessity, taking Irish culture with them," he says. "As a result, Irish culture has become more confident."

With growing confidence comes opportunity. Which is why the time is now right for an Irish TV station in Britain, he believes. TARA will broadcast family entertainment, mostly originated in Ireland. Majority-owned by United International Holdings, an American cable company, it will target both Irish expatriates and British viewers with little or no Irish connection. Eventually, it is hoped to roll out the format around the world.

Advertising will be a big source of revenue for TARA - for Irish brands aiming at expat-riates and mainstream brands able to target Irish viewers for the first time. David Sanderson, sales director at Carlton Satellite Sales, which is handling TARA's commercial airtime, says: "A core attraction lies in the fact the station is positioning itself to attract Irish and non-Irish as well. We are confident TARA's appeal to the non-Irish will open up a whole new area."

Guinness and Stena, the ferry operator, have already expressed interest. However, he predicts, "I'm certain the likes of Unilever and Procter & Gamble will be as keen to use it to sell to Irish housewives during the day as they are using ITV to reach non-Irish. For the first time, there's a choice."

As important as serving the Irish in Britain will be cultivating the Irish-friendly. Jeremy Probert, the Guinness media manager, believes the time has never been better, as the way of life conjured up by Irishness has particular appeal to the Nineties consumer. He says: "Research for Guinness shows there has been a sea change in attitudes. Priorities have shifted: from searching for the right brand as a badge, to a desire for a brand which is more in tune with personal values."