Whistling in a Welsh wind for a brand

John Osmond enters the fray over how best Wales can be projected in the world

Economy Minister Edwina Hart told the Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee in March that she needs “a brand that’s identifiable in Wales in terms which takes in the economy, inward investment, tourism, all of that, that takes in everything.” She said she had a team of experts examining how the government is projecting its message to potential inward investors and visitors from overseas. Mrs Hart is whistling in the wind. An all-encompassing Wales brand has been a holy grail for decades past. It will be no less elusive today.

Wales has a number of powerful brands. To start with Y Ddraig Goch is a pretty potent national emblem that does not lack distinctiveness. In this year of the Grand Slam, Welsh rugby continues to be our leading component of international recognition. Wales is also strongly associated with performers like Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Sir Anthony Hopkins, and cultural institutions like Welsh National Opera. They are powerful projections of Wales, but they are not a brand.

When Edwina Hart bemoaned the absence of a brand she was thinking of the economy. Countries that have been able to project a strong image around the world have generally done so in terms of indigenous business success associated with distinctive products. Guinness is inextricably associated with Ireland, whisky with Scotland, Nokia with Finland, Ikea with Sweden and so on.

Wales has developed some useful brands over recent years, especially in the food sector, with products such as Ty Nant mineral water, Rachel’s Dairy, Halen Môn or Penderyn whiskey. However, these are highly niche and unlikely to achieve the global identification that Edwina Hart is looking for. In the absence of such individual brand ambassadors for Wales, the one brand that established some international recognition was that of the Welsh Development Agency – a brand carelessly cast aside when the WDA was hauled unceremoniously into the civil service in 2004. Baby and bathwater spring to mind. It was a brand to die for (certainly, many English regions would), and the failure to remedy that act of vandalism has been a black mark against every Economic Development Minister over the last eight years.

Edwina Hart’s announcement in March of a science policy that includes a £50 million fund to attract the best scientists to Wales, and another £100 million to kick start a drive to build critical mass in the life sciences field are welcome initiatives. But we still face formidable hurdles if we are to lift ourselves from the bottom end of economic league tables, something we have so far failed to do despite billions of euros being pumped into West Wales and the Valleys. In terms of inward investment we have plummeted from the top to the bottom of the UK table. At the same time the Welsh Government’s capital funding has been cut in half.

The WDA’s most successful chairman Lord Rowe-Beddoe, in his address to the IWA’s National Economy conference in March, judged that it would be asking too much of the Welsh Government to swallow its pride and recreate the organisation. That is, no doubt, a savvy political call, but there are two related areas in which the Welsh Government needs some arm’s length capacity if it is to move forward. First, a capacity to sell Wales hard each and every day, a task for which politicians and civil servants cannot possibly have the necessary time. Second, to raise private finance in ways that will not fall on to the Welsh Government’s balance sheet and, under the Treasury’s over-strict rules, incur a penalty on our Barnett formula funding.

There are two potentially useful brands, that could give shape to such a new capacity, currently lying in drawers. The WDA brand still rests with the Welsh Government and, in visual terms, could be revived without necessarily resurrecting the agency in its previous form. The other – the Bank of Wales – lies in a drawer at Lloyds TSB, a bank that is in public ownership. In its day, pre-devolution, the Bank of Wales had little exposure outside Wales, but it is a title that has an authoritative ring that could be built into something powerful in the new context. Whatever the solution the Welsh Government needs to move quickly if it is to lift the curse of our current, culpable invisibility.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. This is the editorial in the current Spring 2012 issue of the IWA’s journal The Welsh Agenda.

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