'Our logo is flying the flag for Irish jobs'
The bad times have always proved to be good for the 'Guaranteed Irish' logo and home-brand loyalty is a key for growth. By Mark Keenan
THE 'Guaranteed Irish' logo is a 1980s classic for anybody who came of age in that decade. It is right up there with the Lyons' Minstrels who tap-danced across tea bags, the Irish-made Ford Cortina Corrib car and Harp Lager's 'Sally O'Brien' and "the way she might look at you".
When unemployment ran at 20pc, the state-funded campaign was a vibrant national movement and we followed its creed with quasi-religious fervour.
We shopped for jobs and scoured products for the 'GI' ensign. Classroom-indoctrinated children wore the 'GI' badges and badgered their parents if they didn't. 'Guaranteed Irish' was Ireland's 'Dig for Victory.'
And just when many of us thought 'GI' had long since disappeared -- shot with JR and boxed with Bosco -- the motif popped up again recently with its high brow "four euro" campaign.
The message that €4 spent by each Irish household per week would create 7,000 new jobs resonated across the airwaves and was reminiscent of the organisation's 1980s' fighting form.
The campaign got Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton on board -- the first minister to get behind a Guaranteed Irish campaign since the organisation went private in 1984.
Director Tom Rea forgives us for thinking his organisation had faded away -- it did almost die in 2008. Rea himself has been with the organisation on and off since 1984 when EU law required it to be privatised and most of that time has seen its powers fading. Back in 1984 it had 60 staff and over a thousand members, today there are six staff and 300 members.
"As economic conditions improved people weren't as interested in buying Irish. 'Irish' companies as we defined them were also fast disappearing -- closing down or being taken over by multinationals prior to having their manufacturing functions outsourced," says Rea.
"Beforehand we had 530 Irish clothing and footwear manufacturing firms and the retail sector had been led by Irish buyers, Irish suppliers and Irish stores like Switzers, Shaws and Roches."
Through the boom, Guaranteed Irish itself fell into a downward spiral of fewer members leading to smaller marketing budgets which in turn led to fewer members. By 2008 the organisation's membership was down to just 200 and Guaranteed Irish was six months away from final closure.
Then the recession kicked in.
"It was at that point that we noticed something strange," says Rea. "We found that there had been an increase in enquiries about using our logo -- but not from Irish-owned firms but from the multinationals based here.
"Among the earliest of these new applications was BUPA, which was then trading in Ireland."
The problem for Rea's organisation was an obvious one -- the letters stand for British United Provident Association. Definitely not Irish. Or were they?
"BUPA rightly pointed out to us that they were employing as many people here as anyone else and we had to agree. They did, in fact, fulfil our strict jobs and value-added criteria. So we admitted them."
Companies such as Pfizer and SMA followed. "They were keen to show that they were doing their bit for Ireland's economy and they believed our logo was important for that purpose."
"The Irish based multi-nationals made us question our own policies. Our core mission statement was to create jobs in Ireland and companies like these were employing as much as anyone else.
"So we started admitting them -- once they could fulfil our long-standing criteria of showing that that 50pc of value must be added here in Ireland at the point of manufacture or conversion.
"They had to provide jobs through a range of processes -- the source of raw materials, production, employment, packaging, promotion and transport.
"Now we're like the Irish football team -- it doesn't matter where the parents come from so long as they qualify by our standards to wear the green jersey and provide Irish jobs. There were all sorts of new considerations.
"Take the example of Bewleys coffee -- how can it be Irish? But we went out and walked through a process whereby a bag of raw green beans were roasted, ground, blended, tasted -- with 20 Irish people involved in this work.
"The end product is totally Irish -- in the same way a newspaper is printed on imported raw material but obviously requires a range of local based processes to make it what it is."
Most encouraging for Rea, however, is the new stream of vibrant Irish start-up firms who have followed the multinationals in taking up Guaranteed Irish membership.
Among them are companies like Pixy, a maker of luxury Irish bath products from Mallow, Little Diners, a lunches for creches operation from Rathnew, and Kilbeggan Organic, an oat food company from the town of the same name.
The result is that since 2010 Guaranteed Irish has increased its membership by 50pc -- from 200 to 300 firms. At current rates of enrolment, it is expecting to add between 25 to 40 new firms per annum. These days 40pc of new members approach Guaranteed Irish rather than the other way around.
In this revitalised club, the wholly Irish newcomers and the 'jersey-earning' multi-nationals still rub shoulders with hardy survivor brands who have been with the marque all along -- Manhattan Peanuts, Brennan's Bread, Odlums, Dairygold and Curragh Carpets.
"There are products that people might not realise are Irish (Sudocrem for example) because the Irish Medical Council forbids its Irish-based members to use the GI logo in their products -- and this sector accounts for 25pc of our current membership.
"But they still value the logo and use it in other ways."
With budgets building, Guaranteed Irish is once again eager and well-funded enough to make its presence felt. Its powder is now dry for a series of campaigns like the ones that made it so prominent in the 1980s. "This time we've got social media on board and we're in the process of getting back into schools to raise awareness."
But while the willingness to buy Irish and support jobs is back again, our consumers have a real problem today. They are genuinely confused by the number of 'Irish' brandings out there, particularly those umbrella brandings which have been created by the retailers themselves.
"Shoppers must realise that non-Irish product makers are more eager than ever to give the impression that their products are made here even when they are not.
"Only a strictly regulated per-product logo like ours or that used by An Bord Bia, is a true guarantee of Irishness. So if it doesn't have a Guaranteed Irish logo on it, it's time to ask yourself why.
Rea, who once ran Switzers and attempted a management buyout at Clearys during his career in retail, is obviously pleased with the sudden revival of his organisation's fortunes.
"In a time when we feel particularly powerless, we must realise that each of us really has got a say in our future and we exercise it every time we go shopping."
Fighting talk, but it begs the obvious question: Is Guaranteed Irish akin to butter vouchers, paper firelighters and homemade soup -- something we only turn to in a recession?
"Perhaps that's the case. It truly depends on whether we've learned any lessons these past few years.
"For my part, I hope we will look back and see where failing to buy Irish in the good years has left us. Hopefully this is a lesson we'll all remember whenever our economy lifts again."