Recently my wife and I traveled to Ireland for our son's destination wedding. Here are a few observations made with my marketing, design and photography eye.
I am struck immediately by the juxtaposition of kitschy clichées and the deep undercurrent of tradition and history that flows through every field, village and ancient castle. I arrive in Dublin dragging a bag of St. Patrick's Day stereotypes—leprauchans, green Guinness, 4-leaf clovers—but very quickly I lose it and am immersed in the reality of the land, its people, and their history. Celtic crosses evoke Christian and Pagan roots; stone ruins of castles and farmhouses saturate me with the legacy of generations of hard work, passion, struggle, adaptation; ubiquitous goats, cows and horses casually graze by the roadside, curious then indifferent; and I am engulfed by the unique natural beauty of the countryside—rocks, hills, mountains, water, coast, sky.
Driven to tears
My immediate challenge is the driving. Opposite side of the road? No problem. But then there are endless hairpin turns in lanes barely as wide as my rented minivan, sometimes narrowing to a small dirt path, jarring me awake from jet lag as I dodge oncoming traffic and stone walls just inches from passenger door. I ultimately get quite good at it, and the experience informs my opinion of the Irish character: fearless, precise, frugal, laid back, accommodating, forgiving, efficient.
Rock walls. Everywhere.
Really. Everywhere. The environment determines the solution to the design challenge. Put another way, your design solution or marketing strategy will be determined by your primary demographic and market conditions. The rock walls are not some quaint, decorative tourist attraction. They are everywhere, killing two birds with one stone: Need a fence to keep in your cows? Got too many rocks? Build a wall. Then build another one. EVERY field is subdivided by criss-crossed labyrinthine stone walls, old, lichen-covered, some bound together with overgrown, intertwined brambles. The perfect adaptation to a harsh, unforgiving landscape. I find out the hard way how effective they are on day one. My first foray into the field across from our house, which separated us from the sea, looks like a pleasant walk, but I soon fall off a wobbly rock wall, landing up to my chest in large thorny knot of blackberry bushes, coffee in one hand, camera in the other. Trapped.
As I pursue my exploration of the nature of Irish countryside, my meditation is continually interrupted by what I see as commercial pandering to the tourist dollar. Every inn, every bed & breakfast, every tavern, every store, every sign seems to use the same typeface. Ironically named American Uncial. And it was green. My opinion of Irish graphic design starts to tank, and I find myself becoming judgmental, as I have many times before when encountering a client whose established identity did not match the customer experience. I begin to fantasize about saving their beautiful country and heritage with a thorough rebranding campaign…until I see the Book of Kells.
Book of Kells
The Book of Kells is on permanent display at Trinity College Library, Dublin. Its Long Hall, built in 1712, is a stunning, cavernous, ornately appointed 2-story room with 200,000 of the Library's oldest books, and an impressive collection of busts of philosophers, authors, and supporters of the college. Down the center of the 235 foot corridor are display cases with a wide variety of literary works, including Harry Potter and various anime and comic classics. The focal point is one of the oldest surviving Gaelic Medieval Harps, dating back to the 15th century.
We enter the Library, (which is home to more than 6 million volumes), and in the first exhibition room, there it is, in 1200-year-old sacred text, THE typeface. Everywhere, in various iterations and colors, intertwined in dizzying complexity with swirling Celtic knots, illuminated text, saints and scholars. That singular experience united the two seemingly disparate Irelands. A deeply religious and passionate people, with a history bound to the land, going back longer than I can imagine. The perception of cliché and lack of sophistication is something I, the uninformed and ignorant, bring to the table. Now when I see that typeface on the sign of an inn in Lahinche, I understand the depth of its origins. And when I see it arching over a drunken leprauchan on a t-shirt in Walmart, I am saddened and offended.
The Old and the New
What I find beautiful and most intriguing is the coexistence of the ancient and the modern. Wifi in a castle. Filming a wedding in a stone abbey with an iPhone 6 plus in HD. Checking the GPS while dodging cattle in the middle of the road. Wind turbines and ancient ruins. A Prius at the Cliffs of Moher. A high-tech hub, Ireland has become the European headquarters of technology giants like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter. Yet half an hour out of Dublin, cows leisurely graze among the fog shrouded trees right next to the M50. Against this backdrop I muse about how our high-tech marketing platforms and techniques are still rooted in traditional, time-tested principles.
It’s all about the people.
My best friend Stefan had two pieces of advice, both of which were spot-on: “Focus on the car coming toward you rather than the shoulder of the road” and “Ireland is all about the people”. Eventually I get comfortable with the driving, but immediately I am taken with the people. Every person is super nice, friendly, accommodating to the point where I begin to suspect a conspiracy. Everyone—airport shuttle drivers, ferry boat wranglers, parking lot attendants, hotel desk staff, bar owners, cabbies asked for directions, horse and buggy drivers, museum bouncers—is kind and helpful to a fault. A flawless user experience, if you will: great customer service. My Irish experience matched their established brand identity and their marketing efforts were right on:
“Discover the magic of Ireland”
“Ireland— Its people and their stories”
“Embark on the Road Trip of a Lifetime”
“The Wild Atlantic Way—Experience the untamed west coast of Ireland, and start an adventure you’ll never want to end”
“As friendly as a village and as intimate as a pub, Dublin is a capital city like no other”
And I am again reminded that whether formulating a marketing strategy, assessing a customer’s experience, or experiencing the full depth of a brand’s story, it’s all about the people.