As a first generation Irish-American growing up in Philadelphia, I was very lucky to visit Ireland every summer as a child. It was important to my parents that we would know our family in Ireland and learn about our culture. But, a funny thing happened every summer shortly before our trip. Our “American” friends would ask us the strangest questions before our journey. Do they have electricity in Ireland?
Do they have cars, refrigerators, bathrooms, etc…? Does everybody have red hair and freckles? And my personal favorite, did you ever see a leprechaun?
Of course Ireland had cars and electricity along with all of the other modern conveniences that we enjoyed in the States. The truth is that Ireland was in many ways more sophisticated than the United States. The Irish were usually years ahead of us in fashion and they lived in glamorous homes with all of the latest technology. So why was the perception of Ireland so far from reality? Where was the disconnect?
As time went on, we came to realize that the problem was that Ireland’s tourism industry marketed the image of the country to be a nostalgic step back in time. They had created a brand that looked to the “old Ireland,” not to the modern sophisticated country that we knew and loved.
I started to notice that all of the advertisements showed a beautiful “ginger” family riding on a donkey cart passing by a thatched cottage. The men all wore tweed caps with aron sweaters while they drank Guinness in a dark pub. It resembled the movie “The Quiet Man.” Don’t get me wrong… we love the movie… but it showcases a different time in Ireland. A time that was long gone.
At the time… this branding was good for the tourism business. Foreigners loved the idea of taking a step back in time to get a glimpse of their ancestors’ lives. And the Irish expats that were returning home to Ireland after 30 years abroad, loved the idea of a nostalgic trip. They wanted to remember and experience the Ireland that they had left behind in their youth.
Over the years, while Ireland evolved even further, the marketing campaigns started to reflect the new reality. Now, Ireland is not just known as the land of shamrocks and Guinness. It is seen as a globally trendsetting hub for business, art, fashion and more. The challenge in this transformation of “Brand Ireland” was to market contemporary Ireland without losing touch with the heart of its history and beauty.
So, if you plan on celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this year, maybe try something new. Find a gallery highlighting and Irish artist… or find a modern Irish movie on Netflix. Better yet… book yourself a ticket to Ireland for your next vacation! Sláinte!