We can't afford to say hard cheese to tourism marketing
Back in the 1960s, the Milk Marketing Board (MBB) in the UK had a problem it needed to solve. Despite increased levels of milk production by British farmers, sales of cheddar cheese - one of the main outputs of milk production - were flat-lining. The MBB needed to do something to stimulate sales by getting Brits to eat more cheese every day. In collaboration with its advertising agency, J Walter Thompson, it came up with the novel idea to sell cheese to pubs.
Long before sandwich bars appeared on the scene and cafe culture engulfed society, many working Brits headed to the pub at lunchtime. The idea was to sell these lunch-time drinkers a plate of cheese and bread, often accompanied by some pickles. Adventurous landlords threw in some celery or a tomato. The clever marketers called this new gourmet creation the Ploughman's Lunch and it was deemed to be the perfect companion to a pint of beer.
Within a matter of years, practically every pub in England had its own version of the Ploughman's lunch and sales of English cheddar took off. Very soon, people thought that the Ploughman's Lunch was a genuine classic culinary throwback to more pastoral times when merry farm labourers dined on cheese, bread and beer every day. The Ploughman's Lunch was even immortalised in a movie of the same name that was written by Ian McEwan.
It encapsulated a rural idyll that could have been plucked from a Thomas Hardy novel, but what is interesting is that it was something that punters wanted to believe in. And in convincing them of this, the marketers had effectively reimagined their own version of history.
In other words, it was a triumph of marketing over reality.
Most marketers will agree this is a difficult thing to achieve and even harder to sustain as it requires a substantial investment. But I was reminded of it on a flight from New York to Dublin last week when the elderly passenger sitting beside me explained how excited he was to be visiting the Wild Atlantic Way and once that was out of the way, he intended to head on to Ireland's Ancient East.
While I hadn't the heart to explain to him that he was just visiting two parts of Ireland that have always been there but had been carefully divided by a team of clever marketers and consultants, he clearly believed that he was visiting two country-sized theme parks that were around for years.
And, of course he was right, but thanks to some marketing wizardry, midland counties that may never have found their way on to a list of 'Top 10 Fun Places in Ireland' were now part a much more exciting and marketable proposition called Ireland's Ancient East.
While it's easy to be cynical about this spatial sorcery, it has worked wonders for the Irish tourism industry and it underlines the hugely important role that marketing plays in bringing tourists to these shores. Lest we forget, approximately 10.5 million overseas visitors chose to come to Ireland last year, delivering revenues to economy of about €5.4bn.
To the credit of agencies like Tourism Ireland and its indigenous counterpart, Failte Ireland, the tourism industry has had its game face on for the past few years. Only last month, the World Economic Forum's Global Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index ranked Ireland as number three in the world, out of 136 countries, for effectiveness in marketing and branding when it came to attracting tourists. Not bad for a small weather-challenged country operating in a very highly competitive and cut-throat marketplace.
But there is no room for complacency. While it is nice to pat ourselves on the back occasionally, the same WEF report pointed out that Ireland ranked a poor 49th when it came to the percentage of government expenditure allocated to tourism and travel. For a sector that employs 220,000 workers - but has the potential to create many more jobs - this is worrying.
Tourism Ireland alone has seen its overseas marketing budget slashed from slashed from €62m in 2008 to €36m in 2015, although it had a little bit more to invest in 2016.
Despite this massive budgetary cull, Tourism Ireland has still managed to deliver record number of tourists. But there will come a point in time where it will not be able to compete effectively with countries that have better resourced marketing coffers and visitor numbers could be impacted significantly. A reduced marketing spend in the UK during 2016, for example, translated into a decrease in the number of British visitors coming here in the first quarter of 2017. This is not good news for the sector, particularly with Brexit looming large on the horizon.
But as the British Milk Marketing Board found back in the 1960s, a sustainable marketing campaign that delivers results requires more than just a commitment and an act of marketing sorcery: it requires a substantial and ongoing marketing investment if it is to deliver the goods, or in our case, much needed tourists, jobs and revenues to the exchequer.
Sunday Indo Business