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.

8 thoughts on “Whistling in a Welsh wind for a brand

  1. I would have thought that telling people that Wales is only a couple of hours from LONDON,and that english is our main language would be a great advert,however the ‘nation builders’,particularly at BBC Wales/S4C wont have that at all. They wish to encourage the fact that wales is a seperate identy,with two languages,and have a world class rugby team in a team game that very few in world are interest in at all. EH is surely part of the government that cannot get a grip on the over-governed welsh state,and particularly welsh language ‘racket’,now evidenced by internal police force. We are MAD in worrying about such matters,but it keeps the ‘chattering classes’ happy,and in very well paid jobs at the public expense.

  2. This latest blog raises a number of interesting issues, in my view both positive and negative.

    Let’s take the negative. Let me say that I am disappointed at John’s description of David Rowe Beddoe as “the most successful Chairman” of the WDA. He wasn’t!
    Under his watch the organisation entered its decline, there was no leadership and its “success” was questionable – see my article in the Western Mail of a few Wednesdays ago. When the House of Commons Select Committee in 1998 asked him to explain the considerable anomalies in the successes claimed, (referred to in the WM article), he had no answer. I know, I was there.

    I simply cannot understand this fascination with a failed organisation.

    A very real positive. John is entirely correct in linking successful businesses with national identity (Guinness, Nokia) and I have consistently argued that we should be encouraging in Wales exactly the kind of final demand products to which he refers. Indeed, I made the point strongly in a monograph published by the IWA in 2008 “A Strategy for the Welsh Economy.”

    Herein lies the confusion in John’s argument. The WDA was good (?) at attracting organisations that either made products that were subsumed into into non-Welsh products (automotive parts for example that disappeared into Japanese cars) or services that were part of a UK brand – the much vaunted (and failing) financial services sector in Wales provides services for, and in the name of, British banks.

    The way forward is to encourage businesses and products that sell all over the world as Welsh final demand products and not to be starry eyed about a past and irrelevant quango.

  3. “Bank of Wales”? I like the idea, but is it a wise idea? We all know that a Bank of Wales would have the same protection from failure that the UK banks currently enjoy but I suspect that, following the burned fingers that resulted from investors in Icelandic banks, international business won’t fall over themselves to be associated with the banking arm of any small country.

  4. Being only a couple of hours from London and speaking English can be proudly claimed by Scunthorpe, Rotheram, Wigan or Lyme Regis. How does Wales distinguish itself from them? Oh, silly question; Howell Morgan doesn’t want to be distinguished from them.

  5. There are two issues here: the search for an elusive “brand” and the process of marketing that brand to the world. Surely a country has several brands, some of which fit into niche markets, such as Ty Nant, and others that put Wales on the map. John’s list in the latter category includes: Welsh rugby, Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins – sport and culture. Interesting that we cling to concepts and slogans which emerged in the 19th century – “Land of Song” and “Gwalia, Gwlad y Gan” come to mind, not forgetting coal and slate and their bi-products, such as male voice choirs. On the other hand, the bullet “BBC Wales” which appeared in the credits for the popular TV show, “Sherlock” caught my eye and elicited a frisson of pride in the product because of that.

    Perhaps the brand is more in the message than in the thing. The phrase “Je me souviens” comes to mind as regards Quebec in this respect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Je_me_souviens). In the case of Wales, the message could emphasize “sustainability” which the Welsh government is actively promoting. A Bank of Wales also has a certain cachet, its formation based perhaps on cooperative financial principles. Looking back, there is the precedent of Banc y Ddafad Ddu in the early 19th century.

    As to marketing the “brand” there was probably a period in the earlier days of its existence when the Welsh Development Agency put Wales on the international map, but the business model on which it was based ran its course. Time perhaps for a fresh look at something similar based on the promotion of sustainable business practices in the context of the web as a marketing tool.

  6. Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Wigan and Lyme Regis are more than a couple of hours away from LONDON?? I would have thought that business people would value location, and particularly in relation to London which is probably the best city in the world. Why do we have to be different in the accentuated manner that the nation builders require?? The real problem is that Wales is now in the wrong place, as main UK market is now Europe, which when I last looked is on eastern side of the country. The growth around Northampton, and virtually all private sector is a joy to behold, particularly as they don’t have a cultural police force, interfering in what people speak in private business’s. We can huff and puff, and keeps minds active but the long term future is poor, and it would be interesting to see long term projections of employment/wealth of this region of UK.

  7. Train times to Wigan, Scunthorpe and Rotherham from London: 1hr 55, 2hr 14 and 2hr 17 respectively compared with Cardiff 2hr 01. I was wrong about Lyme Regis – a pain to get there but you can get from London to Exeter in 2h 01. While we are dealing with facts, how many people are employed in a “cultural police force interfering in what people speak in private businesses”? As for being different, it’s irrelevant to most businesses but quite helpful in tourism for example.

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