As Others See Us

Rhys David has been listening to a group of marketers discuss how Wales can project itself more successfully around the world

Just how well is Wales regarded around the world, a question that seems to border these days on national near-obsession? Until a couple of years ago the Welsh Government participated in an international survey conducted by consultant Simon Anholt with partners GfK into ‘national brands’. . We know that of the 38 countries whose image was put to a panel of 25,000 people around the world in the second quarter of 2007, Wales came right in the middle at 19th, three behind Ireland and sandwiched between Belgium and Portugal.

Respondents were asked to rate countries across a number of criteria, including:
  • Exports – how they felt about goods made in the various countries.
  • Governance – was it fair and open?
  • Culture and heritage – was there an interesting history and a wealth of tradition?
  • People – were they friendly?
  • Tourism- is it a place worth visiting?
  • Immigration and investment – is the country  somewhere worth going to live or invest in?

In that same year the highest spots were held by the UK, Germany, France, Canada and Switzerland, with Turkey, Malaysia, Estonia, Israel and Indonesia bringing up the rear. In this year’s most recent survey, which Wales has not participated in, the top order has changed. The USA is now in the top slot, followed by France, Germany, the UK and Japan.

Not bad for Wales you might think, given that of the 38 locations considered in 2007. Wales was the only one that was not a sovereign country and had the second smallest population. Admittedly some of the strongest support came from other rugby playing countries – where perceptions and knowledge of Wales are high – but nevertheless overseas enthusiasm for Welsh products, its tourism offering, its culture and heritage was encouragingly high.

Yet, an IWA-Chartered Institute of Marketing joint seminar in Swansea this month, at which a range of Welsh marketing luminaries answered audience questions, revealed an underlying feeling, whether justified or not, that Wales was not doing enough to project itself.

As is so often the case in Wales the approach was unashamedly ‘glass half empty’ rather than ‘glass half full’. The abolition of the Welsh Development Agency and to a lesser extent the Wales Tourist Board was seen as an own goal by most of those attending. Brands that had been patiently built up over a prolonged period had been cast aside, it was felt, and replaced by a much more bureaucratic civil service approach. It was argued that their incorporation into the Welsh Government had had a particularly damaging effect on the food industry.

Wales was also felt to lack a modern iconic building – the Wales Millennium Centre and the Millennium Stadium notwithstanding – to put alongside the Angel of the North, Sydney Opera House, or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. More seriously perhaps, people in Wales were felt not to be sufficiently on-message when they went about the world and did not have the information, or were not innately predisposed anyway, to represent Wales in the positive way the marketers would like.

Fair points perhaps, but building a brand where you are dealing with a single organisation trying to reach a particular group of consumers with identifiable products is much easier than creating the image desired for a whole country and particularly one as complicated and disparate as Wales. The panellists – Neil Burchell of Rachel’s Organics, Professor Adrian Palmer of Swansea University, Dan Langford of Acorn, and James Horsham of – were keen to point this out.

So what were their suggestions?  Dan Langford bravely put it to the audience in Swansea that Wales should be less ambivalent about embracing Cardiff as the lead entity that could carry the image of Wales to the world. Other parts of Wales were too ready to criticise any investment made in the capital, he felt, even though the benefits could spread out across Wales. Capital cities were very often a proxy for their countries, the starting point for discovering other delights.

More generally, there was the need for a long term strategy – extending over 20-50 years, according to James Horsham – to build a ‘place’ brand, and some form of consensus had to be secured on what was being sought.

We should  find out what people wanted from their interaction with Wales – whether it was unspoiled countryside, organic products or something else – and see whether it can be delivered. “We have to establish where we want to target and find out what that market is lacking at the moment and what we can bring to it,” Neil Burchell believed.

The message had to be relevant to the receiver, Dan Langford argued, but he also felt perhaps there ought to be some “chilling out” generally in Wales. “If we are known for rugby, the arts or food, that is good. There are lots of positive associations there and let’s build on these. Let’s not beat ourselves up for not being known for other things. Perhaps we cannot be a high tech nation, then so be it.”

However, any campaign to promote Wales had to be managed coherently both internally and externally so that the message was consistent. If people in Wales had a better idea what Wales was meant to be about, they could represent it more accurately – and more proudly – abroad.

Of course, an underlying problem, briefly alluded to during the presentations, is Wales’s dismal record in producing companies that carry an image or brand of the country around the world. It is now a cliché to say Wales does not have a Guinness brand like Ireland, or Scotland’s whiskey trade. In fact, it has an extremely small number of businesses that immediately say ‘Welsh’ and ‘quality’. As a result, Wales is over-dependent on sport and the arts for its international projection.

At the same time perhaps we should be more willing to recognise just how much progress has been made in recognising Wales over recent years, and stop going around telling everyone that the world still thinks of us as part of England, as this is manifestly no longer true. US newspapers, for example, now routinely refer to Wales without substantial further explanatory reference, as do papers in many other parts of the world. Cardiff has jumped into the top ten most visited British cities among overseas visitors to Britain, ahead of Brighton, the longest-established UK tourist resort. Cruise ships call into Welsh ports, and most importantly the associations generated by Wales among those polled by the Anholt organisation were mercifully free of the old stereotypes, mentioning countryside, difference from the rest of the UK, and other positive images.

People in Wales may be the last around the world still to think that our prevailing image is coal, steel, choirs, tall hats and Sunday closing.

Rhys David is a former Financial Times journalist and a Trustee of the IWA.

Also within Politics and Policy