2015: The Brand Year In Review

With 2015 a year when the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word Of The Year is a pictograph (the ‘tears of joy’ emoji), it’s unsurprising that it was also a year when the idea of a brand took some surprising turns.

Although Amazon continues to be the only company in the world’s top-ten most valuable brands that doesn’t actually produce anything, the growing success of businesses such as Uber and Airbnb (who help manage other people’s inventory), and the ongoing popularity of many of the leading social media channels, suggests that some of the traditional definitions of business, and by extension our understanding of a brand and what it means, are likely to change too.

However, two new brands on the Irish scene seem to have taken that a step too far. Virgin Media and eir both appeared in the autumn to considerable fanfare on screens near you, vaguely promising great new things, but neglecting to contact their new customers (or more properly the old customers of UPC and eircom who have been sold like chattels from one relationship to the next without a by-your-leave). A fanfare is one thing, but what good does it do to blow your own trumpet so vigorously that it drowns out the voice of your customer? Both blowhards could do worse than take a leaf out of the Vodafone book, whose courteous and thoughtful “How are you?” campaign to signal their taking the place of Eircell back in 2002 remains for me the standard for changeover amongst brands in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Supervalu took a potentially damaging wrong turn into selling insurance, drawing on their very deep roots as a fresh food retailer to make a clunky and unconvincing argument for their credentials as financial broker. Not that they’re the first business to make the mistake of believing that everything their brand touches turns to gold. King Midas they’re not, and flogging insurance off the shelves is likely to prove a risky business for the brand in the long-term and undermine their core offering.

On our TV screens, the until-now largely neglected third child of terrestrial television finally stepped out of the shadows of siblings one and two to offer a credible viewing alternative through its Rugby World Cup coverage and fast-paced home made soap Red Rock. Whilst rugby fans were divided about many elements of TV3’s delivery, not least the seemingly interminable and ill-timed ad breaks, they voted with their eyes in helping the station post record figures for many of their broadcasts throughout a very popular tournament. And the IRFU were evidently pleased with their performance, as they subsequently awarded them the Six Nations from 2018.

Although they compete on some playing fields, the take-your-turn popularity of Irish soccer, Irish rugby and GAA brands means that these three and others can happily co-exist in towns and heartlands across the country. Even the blink-and-you’ll miss it avenging hand of our new favourite sporting son Conor McGregor suggests that the Irish sporting fan, much like his craft-beer drinking counterpart, likes to maintain a portfolio of favourites whilst sporting a jersey bearing many shades of green.

Gaelic football’s strong showing on TV this year was helped no-doubt by the most iconic rivalry in the game featuring on All-Ireland Final day, what a witty Kerryman friend of mine terms ‘An Chlassiceach’. Although the match itself proved a damp squib, that didn’t stop the game being one of the most-watched of any sport this year. Ireland soccer’s north and south qualification for UEFA 2015 also proved the enduring strength of the Irish Football Fan brand (much of it a self-fulfilled promise it must be said) with newspapers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe hailing the imminent arrival of our party-going followers with a wholehearted ‘You’ll never beat the Irish (on the terraces at least)’. The corruption of the global football brand FIFA on the other hand showed what happens when any organization loses sight of its true customer, and serves another master than the all-important relationships with players and fans.

Water, water everywhere in Ireland over the past year, not helped by the destructive efforts of Storm Desmond (even forces of nature now come with their own memorable brand-names), who emptied home and business-threatening volumes onto the south west of the country in particular during the last month. But it was the raging torrent of dissent around the supply of our drinking and waste-waters that continued to divide opinion, with some of our more active opposition politicians pouring something far more incendiary than oil on troubled Irish Water, whose cack-handed introduction of charges early in the year left the new utility hopelessly marooned. In the meantime, the company’s PR advisers belatedly drew on some of the methods employed by bottled water manufacturers for decades to try to win hearts and minds, but whether these arguments hold any water with householders across the country remains to be seen.

But certainly the most astonishing and uplifting brand story of all this year surrounded the vote that broadened the meaning of marriage to include that partnership between two people regardless of gender. In 1,201,606-more than a single stroke, Ireland became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, in turn signaling to both ourselves and the world that Ireland is becoming a more open and welcoming place. Brand Ireland is likely to benefit in all sorts of ways, not least in becoming a more popular destination for returning emigrants and visitors who previously might have found Ireland an unwelcoming place.

In many ways, that wider transformation in our society was pre-figured in the reassessment of the Panti Bliss character, the drag queen persona of Rory O’Neill and a brand in her own right, who for many years had been cast as a ridiculous figure on the margins of society. O’Neill’s impassioned plea on behalf of the oppressed, delivered in his guise as Panti, made the subsequent debate around equality personal, and introduced a dignity to the pro-equality argument that prompted voters to see past the labels and recognise in their own families, neighbours and friends the people who sought equal rights for all marriage relationships, regardless of gender.

That his plea was made from the stage of the Abbey Theatre became more poignant than ever when the theatre became embroiled in another equality debate, branded Waking The Feminist, which was sparked by the poverty of female representation amongst the playwrights chosen by the Abbey for its 2016 programme. For the Abbey Theatre, which has staged plays telling the stories of the oppressed since its foundation in 1904 (ironically by a male, WB Yeats, and female, Lady Augusta Gregory), the challenge now is for it to become a brand that represents real equality in every aspect of its performance.

In the US meanwhile, brand Trump has raised its ugly bouffant as a serious contender for the Republican ticket in next year’s Presidential elections. Would-be President Trump appears to be dealing a losing-card to other Trump operations however with recent reports of the Trump-owned Turnberry course being dropped from the British Open rota, whilst the PGA Tour has noted that “Mr. Trump’s comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf”.

However, another brand that attracted its own share of controversy in 2015, Volkswagon, seems to have accelerated away from the emission scandal that hit the German car-maker earlier this year, with news that sales of the brand are up in Ireland and Germany. Perhaps the deep-seated loyalty that Volkswagon builds into its cars has proved more than able to absorb the shock of a not-insignificant bump in the road? Time will tell.

So a year then when brands home and abroad continued to evolve and the relationships that they offer to us as we make our choice as customers, as voters, and as fans continued to fascinate. And if words fail us in our efforts to describe those relationships, we can now call on a whole range of emojis to help us. It’s official.