Foilsithe ag Gavin O'Toole, The Guardian, 20/06/2016
Irial Mac Murchú knows how a minority language can help to win business: the former journalist’s television production company has grown from a one-man show in 1993 to become the largest in Ireland, employing the equivalent of 50 full-time staff.
Nemeton TV may be located in the unlikely, if striking, setting of Mac Murchú’s native An Rinn in County Waterford, but the company is now an international player, transmitting to audiences all around the world.
Nemeton’s success in making Irish-language programmes – it provides channel TG4 with all its sports coverage and has just won Ireland’s most prestigious marketing award – is a dynamic example of the business reach a minority language can achieve beyond its core market of speakers, in a commercial world dominated by English.
Mac Murchú says Nemeton was once known simply as a company producing in Irish for TG4 but then opted to leverage the language into a key element of its marketing strategy.
“We decided to make the language part of our USP [unique selling point], part of our distinctive image in the marketplace. We have found that the language ... gives us something unique that gets us noticed.”
While English has become the indisputable global business language, the UK has been waking up to the business benefits of multilingualism: according to government figures, a shortage of language skills is costing the country 3.5% of GDP – that’s £48bn – every year. In Europe, 55 million people, 10% of the EU’s population, speak a regional, minority or endangered language.
In Ireland, concern is growing over the status of Irish and its decline within Gaeltacht – or Irish-speaking – enclaves. The language is spoken as a first language by only a small minority and Unesco has classified it as definitely endangered – prompting the government to develop an ambitious 20-year development strategy.
As attention on the language has increased, the case for using it in business has gained momentum. This draws on linguistic research into the socioeconomic factors that encourage the use of one language over others, especially if this promises financial security or mobility. The OECD is among global bodies calling for a better understanding of barriers such as language faced by potential entrepreneurs.
Tom Trainor, chief executive of the Marketing Institute of Ireland, has travelled across Europe talking to entrepreneurs using languages as diverse as Welsh and Basque.
A key role played by a minority language, Trainor says, is as a brand differentiator offering a competitive edge in a crowded market.
He says: “Differentiation is key in marketing and using the Irish language can be a powerful way of standing out from the crowd, especially for small businesses.
“Irish firms can emphasise their origin and brand values through the use of Irish, aiming at either the home market or internationally, and the potential marketing benefits can extend to attracting new customers, increasing customer loyalty, harnessing goodwill at relatively low cost or enhancing their public relations efforts.”
Global brands might not have as much power as is often assumed: research on the manufacturing and traded services sector suggests Irish branding can also promote customer loyalty and consumer awareness.
While the wholly Irish-speaking community is a tiny sub-set of the market in Ireland, goodwill towards the language is reflected in official initiatives to support its use in business.
Foras na Gaeilge, the cross-border body that promotes Irish, has explored the value of the Irish language to business and makes a robust case for developing this. Údarás na Gaeltachta, the authority responsible for Gaeltacht areas, has compiled a Business in Irish guide as part of its support to enterprises. The marketing institute’s annual awards include a special Irish-language category. Local bodies such as Gaillimh le Gaeilge work to encourage the development of bilingual business.
Use of a minority language is particularly valuable in the food industry, allowing producers to highlight origin and quality.
Sorcha Sweeney, finance director of Gallaghers Bakery in Ardara, County Donegal, which has marketed products in Irish for a generation, says: “I see a lot of new entrants to the market and startups in the food sector launching things like jams and meat products highlighting the Irish language to get that ‘look’: it’s an Irish company, so the ingredients must be local.”
This has also been recognised in Wales, where a government taskforce argued in 2014 that using the language could greatly boost trade, especially among food producers, a strategy adopted by the award-winning Caws Cenarth Cheese in Carmarthenshire. The Welsh government says there is a strong business case for use of the language and offers companies support to do so through its Business Wales initiative.
Cornwall is also tapping into the potential of its language, as illustrated by the launch by Bodmin-based Kelly’s ice cream of the first-ever Cornish language TV ad aired nationally in prime time. The 30-second TV ad, featuring an ice cream vendor speaking Kernewek comes as the UK government cuts funding to support the language.
Languages such as Irish may also enable business to target marketing at key socioeconomic groups: evidence suggests greater enthusiasm for the language among professional and executive-level staff.
And if sceptics in an overwhelmingly English-language market dismiss the business case for Irish as wishful thinking, they will be doing so in the face of hard evidence that it can be a multimillion-euro contributor to the economy.
Nemeton’s Mac Murchú says: “When you see brands like Tayto Crisps, which is huge in Ireland, Aer Lingus our biggest airline, RTÉ our biggest broadcaster and even the likes of Toyota doing TV ads in Irish to stand out from the herd, the case speaks for itself.”