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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua Marketing Ltd

Symbolic Actions?

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 14.03.08You’re well up Coomakista on the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle when the vista suddenly opens up and you see the slow, slinking shapes high above you, pushing manfully against a nasty headwind on the final metres of the 3% climb. You’ve done about 4km of the ascent already and have over 2km still to do. Seeing your destination ahead brings mixed emotions. The prize is clearly and tangibly in sight but so too is its price and that price is high on knees, legs and hips.

You distract yourself with thoughts of the day itself. Over 11,000 cyclists. 180km of stunning scenic beauty. The casual chats with fellow cyclists. Great craic and banter. Multifarious acts of random kindness and reciprocal encouragement. A sense of a common shared humanity. An entire local community working together, putting its best foot forward. Over 1200 unpaid volunteers donating precious time, experience, expertise to help stage a hugely ambitious event in support of the less fortunate.

As I labour under the strain of the climb, I’m thinking how powerful this event is as a statement about this region, County Kerry in Ireland’s south-west, and about the tiny town-lands, small villages, mid-sized towns and big conurbations that work together to allow a very large group of people take over their urban spaces, their byways and highways on the first Saturday in July. I’m thinking about this as an extraordinary symbolic action highlighting an unambiguous clarion call: the people of Kerry want you to come and visit; they’re deeply proud of their county, the awesomely beautiful landscape, the delightfully colourful towns.

Simon Anholt on Nation Branding

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 17.15.34In Places, his excellent publication on Nation Branding, Simon Anholt decisively debunks the term as essentially oxymoronic:

Let me be clear: there is no such thing as “nation branding”. It is a myth, and perhaps a dangerous one.

He coins a new term – competitive identity – to describe the process whereby a country, a region or a city endeavours to enhance its reputation in the eyes of the international community and position itself favourably, particularly for inbound tourism or foreign direct investment. To establish successful competitive identity is not a question of marketing communications, says Anholt, but a wider, deeper and more complex series of actions starting with policy change. More to do with the “diplomacy of deeds” than lovely logos or pretty PR.

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Strategy, Substance and Symbolic Action

Good policy, however, is only the foundation for enhanced reputation. It provides the bedrock and the fertile soil in which strategy, substance and symbolic actions may be sown. Strategy, Anholt says, is knowing who you are, where you stand today, where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. As a region Kerry is extraordinarily self aware with a deep legacy in hospitality, strong enough to attract Queen Victoria herself in the mid 1800s. Kerry towns like Killarney and Kenmare constantly challenge themselves about their present status as attractive places and dream up serious plans for the future.

Substance, according to Anholt, is the “effective execution of the strategy in the form of new economic, legal, political, social, cultural and educational activity”. Again, towns like Killarney have successfully implemented real change over the decades, improving the quality of life there for locals and visitors alike. Key examples of this are the on-going developments around the National Park – the restoration of Killarney House is particularly noteworthy – and the long overdue institution of regulations for the Jarveys, the horse-and-buggy operators who have been part of the fabric of life in Killarney for almost two centuries.

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But what about symbolic actions? These, Anholt tells us, are a special kind of substance that have an “intrinsic communicative power; they might be innovations, structures, legislation … which are especially suggestive, remarkable, memorable, picturesque, newsworthy, topical, poetic …”. He continues “they are emblematic of the strategy: they are at the same time a component of the national story and the means of telling it”.

So, the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle as both a component of the county story and the means of telling it? Far fetched? I don’t think so. In fact I think Anholt’s framework perfectly describes the full significance of this truly astonishing event. Many of the people in Kerry – and in Killarney particularly – have a hospitality gene encoded into their DNA. They have an instinctive understanding of the win | win dynamic of altruism. You give and then you get. You postpone pursuit of your own needs in support of another but then it comes back to you. You provide a genuine welcome to visitors and they tell scores of others about their positive experience.

The Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle involves a huge amount of generous, selfless giving. There were 1200 volunteers involved this year, all caught up in a positive virtuous cycle of giving to receive. This creates a special energy, a vibe, a sense of common purpose, a feeling of being part of a greater whole. You get this when you participate on the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle and it connects you, limpet-like, to the place that produces it. It focuses you unambiguously on the Kerry story which is all about welcoming visitors, describing and showcasing the incredible natural beauty of its lakes and mountains, experiencing it first hand on foot, on horseback, on a saddle.

The Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle is also a powerful means of telling the Kerry story. The strategy has been dreamed up and the substance has been crafted to permit over 10,000 lycra-clad men and women to start and end their 180km bike ride in a town whose off season population is a fraction of the number of participants who pitch up on the first Saturday in July for the event. It’s an astonishing logistical undertaking involving a vast cast of characters from politicians, councillors, security, paramedics, caterers, sponsors but, above all, from volunteers who give their time free of charge. There are very few places anywhere that could pull off such a feat.

Branding a place may not be possible but the Kerry Brand has a robust, pacey pulse. It’s full of life and colour, expression and personality and the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle is proof of this.

Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique marketing consultancy working with destinations, hotels and venues on their strategy for MICE tourism.

This was his fifth year to cycle the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle. 

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