Brandwidth 2005 – The Year In Review

I shop therefore I am?

As Ireland’s largest shopping centre opened in Dundrum and consumer spending rocketed across the country, 2005 was a year in which our love affair with brands showed little signs of abating.

Whilst H&M, House of Fraser, Harvey Nichols and Starbucks arrived to great fanfare, proving in the early months at least that absence does make the purse and wallet grow fonder, there was little to suggest that our familiarity with traditional home-grown retailers was breeding anything other than a continued willingness to spend, spend, spend (along with contempt for the worried soundings from economic commentators who suggested that our splurging may be just about to spiral out of control).

In the midst of this extended retail love-in, it was easy to forget that, more and more, the great Irish romance is in property, and a few Irish brand giants, including the likes of Superquinn and Jurys Ballsbridge, were sweet-talked by buyers who seemed to place greater value on the property bank they had collected than on any goodwill they had built up over many years of trading.

Goodwill was severely rationed on board another domestic brand, Irish Ferries, whose troubles quickly became a rallying point for Irish workers concerned about how the economy is shaping up on wages and conditions of employment. Whilst a deal of sorts has been thrashed out, public reaction on the streets of our cities would suggest that the brand has been badly holed beneath the water line and will do well to stay afloat in the new year.

Meanwhile, the three Irish airlines soared even higher than their tenor counterparts (who enjoyed their own brand of success during the year). Aer Lingus, Aer Arann and Ryanair, continued to fly high with each of the three adding more routes to their already extensive European networks. Each of the airlines operates from a hugely different brand model (chalk, cheese and charcoal?) and their success offers a timely reminder that there is plenty of airspace for players in any sector who are prepared to define a market and stand squarely for something.

Irish politicians branded themselves with a vengeance in 2005, with Enda Kenny finally showing signs of breaking free from the muddled and indistinct image that had mired previous leaders of his party. In the meantime, the man whose position he covets tried on some socialist characteristics for size and found that red simply didn’t match the shades of green his party usually favours.

Meanwhile, Irish soccer supporters turned various shades as the national team turned in a series of insipid performances en route to a third place finish in their qualifying group. More disappointing than the failure to make the grade was the manner in which the team rolled over to have its belly tickled by unconvincing opponents in a group that many felt was there for the taking. Since long before the Charlton era, the Irish soccer brand has been about courage in the face of overwhelming odds, what the poet Yeats called the “hurling of the little streets upon the great” and, in the past, a tragic failure to qualify, allied to a show of steely, native pluck, has simply added to the national sense of having won a moral victory. Deprived of victory of any sort this time round, the Irish supporter felt cheated by what he saw as the team’s betrayal of core values.

On the world scene, the big brand stories of the year were largely taking place on the Internet. Confidence in the medium returned to levels unseen since before the bubble burst with names such as eBay and Google growing in stature, value and reach through the year. The announcement in early December by the Oxford University Press that their ‘Word of the Year’ was ‘podcast’ (what they defined as, “a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the internet for downloading to a personal audio player”) confirmed both Apple’s continued resurgence on the back of their iPod success of the previous year, as well as the growing popularity of the internet as both communications and commercial arena.

We were also treated to a new brand of papacy, with the man formerly known as ‘God’s rottweiler’ stepping into a role that had been indelibly made his own by one of the twentieth century’s most charismatic figures. From a PR perspective, Benedict XVI handled his own elevation most skilfully, presenting himself in contrast to “the great John Paul II” as a “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”. Despite this rather meek language, the early signs are that, far from hiding in the shadow of his predecessor, this Pope is ready to surprise his detractors by showing an unexpected lightness of touch in his public dealings whilst asserting his own, distinctive leadership style.

On the big screen, brand was king, with leading box office contenders King Kong, Harry Potter and Narnia displaying all that we expect of the great brands: the powerful story of a compelling hero, vividly told for a contemporary audience. That none of this is any accident is evident in the words of Philip Boyens, screenwriter for the remake of King Kong: “This is a classic story and it can withstand many retellings. It doesn’t matter how good the effects, if you don’t care about the characters and the story, then spectacular doesn’t really mean anything.” Advice that any would-be brand builder would do well to take to heart.

Meanwhile, back where we started in the world of retail, the fall of beauty Kate Moss matched that of the beast and sent her own brand endorsement value tumbling with global names such as Chanel, H&M and Burberry rushing to put distance between themselves and their erstwhile, beloved heroine. Whilst critics were quick to point out that the model’s behaviour was scarcely news to those who had commissioned her in the first place, the story does remind us that in 2005, the power of the brand to make or break personal and corporate fortune remains undiminished and that “I shop therefore I am” looks likely to remain the consumer mantra long into 2006 and beyond.