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West Cork, A Place Apart

Posted by Caroll Taiji
In 1998, the region of West Cork, in Ireland, launched the Fuchsia Brand, an initiative that gathers local tourism and food enterprises under a single regional identity. Many years in development, the brand was a strategic undertaking designed to build on the area’s strengths by creating a highly-recognizable symbol of quality backed by high standards of product and service excellence. This article provides a brief overview of the development, establishment and growth of the Fuchsia Brand – how initial commitment and long-term vision have benefited the process, and how the Irish propensity for conversation and exchange have proven to be one of its greatest assets.

West Cork: a few details

West Cork, part of County Cork, is located along the southwest corner of Ireland, covering about 3,200 km² of primarily agricultural land. The local economy has traditionally been based on agriculture and fishing, with tourism becoming more important in the last half-century. The region is steeped in history and tradition, with each town and village adhering to local customs, building materials and crafts – creating remarkable diversity within such a small area.

The eastern, less rocky part of the area is more accessible and therefore more prosperous than the isolated western parts, but the entire region prospered during the “Celtic Tiger” years of the 1990s. The population actually increased during that time, with newcomers, attracted by the area’s pristine natural environment, often starting businesses in the food, tourism and craft industries.

Key funding

The creation of the Fuchsia Brand is inextricably linked to the European Union (EU) LEADER Initiative for Rural Development, which was launched as a pilot program in 1992, and was designed to help rural actors consider the long-term potential of their local region. The LEADER program supported an area-based, bottom-up approach incorporating multi-sector business plans, with decision-making happening at a local level.

In 1991 the West Cork LEADER Co-operative Society (WCLC) was created specifically to apply for LEADER funding, with the objective of developing and fostering an environment and culture conducive to, and supportive of, local enterprise in West Cork. During the first funding phase, the WCLC identified the region’s major strengths, establishing that “quality food culture” and “environmentally friendly tourism” would be the most important contributors to indigenous enterprise development.

Key thinking

The WCLC was subsequently funded by the follow-up LEADER I and LEADER II programs – but between these two funding programs there was a one-year lag which proved absolutely key to the brand’s success. This hiatus allowed the WCLC to refine its thinking and conduct months of discussion with key influencers and local enterprises in the food and tourism sectors. It was during this time that the WCLC leaders realized that the branding strategy would have to prove itself to these players first, by showing them how it could meet their specific development needs.

The challenge was to frame the needs of both the food and tourism sectors within a coherent rural development strategy. Some players were tempted to try and replicate a branding model or initiative from elsewhere – for example Italy or France – but the WCLC was adamant that they had to create a unique model for West Cork. In fact, the brand had to BE West Cork.

Going deep

The Fuchsia was chosen very early on as the brand logo – a vibrant, colourful flower that grows profusely throughout the region, it was felt by all to be a perfect image, and was used even during the pilot stage on all promotional material and route signage. It was very clear, however, that the brand would not be merely a logo. It had to have meaning and depth, and must articulate of a series of specific values – the brand would be neither generic nor vague.

With this specificity in mind, the WCLC and its partners drafted and adopted common principles and tailored accreditation processes for each sector: specific criteria that enterprises must meet in order to gain membership to the brand and be allowed to use the Fuchsia logo. Efforts focused initially on creating a food brand, which was built on West Cork’s pre-existing reputation. Key criteria for the management of quality assurance systems were developed with the assistance of Ireland’s National Food Centre, and other criteria elements followed.  A code of practice was subsequently developed for the tourism sector. It is important to note that, for both sectors, training was (and still is) necessary in order to get brand accreditation.

A bold launch

In 1996, the Fuchsia Brand was still in many ways just a concept . Nevertheless, when the WCLC got wind of the fact that an EU summit on Agriculture and Rural Development Policy was to be held in Cork, they applied to the Irish Department of Agriculture for permission to create a display of West Cork food products for the event. They then spent €40,000 (about $58,000 US) on marketing props, images and displays, and produced an introductory booklet – the first effort to crystallize and publicly communicate the Fuchsia Brand objectives.

This somewhat unorthodox move generated both immediate and sustained impact. The EU Agriculture Commissioner was so impressed by the concept that he took time out from the summit to visit the WCLC offices in West Cork. And as an unexpected bonus, both Irish and foreign television used the display as a backdrop for their interviews, giving the brand instant visibility and credibility.

After the launch, the WCLC continued to support a wide range of projects that responded to specific needs, in particular training courses that allowed enterprises to meet the criteria necessary to become a Fuchsia member. The brand – now managed by the West Cork Development Partnership (WCDP) – has substantially increased its profile and brand membership, and is now a core component of the overall rural development strategy in West Cork. It continues to host a wide range of events that support networking within each sector, and provides sector information through its newsletter and in-person contact.

Food brand – a Taste of West Cork

Since West Cork was already home to the greatest concentration of rurally-based specialty food producers in Ireland, it made sense from the beginning to link the Fuchsia Brand to this sector. There was also the added advantage that, within the specialty food sector, differentiation is always to some degree based on some aspect of product origin so linking the product to the place naturally worked well. Even before the creation of the brand, many individuals within this sector knew and networked with each other, so some cohesion was already in place.

Members of the Fuchsia Brand food sector must meet a long list of criteria for inclusion, some based on product origin and others related to hygiene, processing and quality of presentation (see the list at the Fuchsia Brand website http://www.westcorkaplaceapart.com/about-fuchsia-brands/how-to-join-fuch...).
In exchange they are privy to improved market access, group promotion, sector-specific training and networking opportunities. They are also allowed to use what one member referred to as “the coveted Fuchsia logo.” Membership is not static however – like a Michelin star, it must be repeatedly earned, and members have been expelled for not living up to the Fuchsia standard.

Tourism sector

Creating a coherent brand for the tourism sector was more of a challenge, given the wide range of services and enterprises involved and their different needs and expectations. In order to create a consistent tourist experience, the WCLC looked at three aspects of the challenge and formulated a specific response to each one.

Tourism is made up of many services, many of them intangible. This makes them more unpredictable and their quality more difficult to control. Fuchsia Brand has put in place policies and programs designed to ensure that all Fuchsia members exceed visitor expectations (again, see the criteria members must adhere to at http://www.westcorkaplaceapart.com/about-fuchsia-brands/how-to-join-fuch...). Members are given access to training and support to help them deliver on the Fuchsia promise, and those who excel are recognized through the Fuchsia awards program.

A destination is perceived by visitors to be one unit, even though it has a highly fragmented nature. Because it is the destination as a whole, rather than one particular establishment, that brings visitors to a place, a shared destination vision is an essential pre-requisite for successful destination quality management. Fuchsia Brand members attain this shared vision primarily through the many opportunities for networking and interaction that membership provides – this increases trust, promotes awareness of each other’s products, and allows for fruitful exchanges on many levels. They therefore refer visitors to each other’s enterprises, making sure that tourists remain within the Fuchsia Brand.

Small- and medium-sized tourism enterprises (SMTEs), which make up the majority of the sector, have different needs or constraints than larger firms. In particular, they are less able to attend service training courses due to time and budget constraints. Fuchsia Brand removes these barriers by heavily subsidizing most training courses, and by offering them at varying times and locations so that all members can attend.

Training courses have in fact proven to be the most significant network activity for the tourism brand. Participation in training ensures that all members, diverse as they are, are aware of Fuchsia’s vision, mission and objectives. The courses also combat the isolation that SMTEs can experience. The relationship between members and management has also been proven to be vitally important – the WCDP offers valuable opinions, guidance and support, as well as access to sector information. In fact, a 2006 member survey indicated that the social benefits of belonging to the Fuchsia Brand are as important as the economic advantages.

The Fuchsia grows and blossoms

In 2005, 18 craft makers were approved to use the Fuchsia logo. By 2007, that number had increased to 31. Craft making is a natural sector to include in the brand, and its inclusion was planned for from the beginning. Because of the grassroots nature of the industry, many members already knew each other and informal networks, which the brand has been able to build on, were well established.

Fuchsia remains Ireland’s only regional food brand. Its logo is recognized by 75% of local shoppers, each of which is a potential ambassador for the brand. The economic impact of the brand is well over €100M, and hundreds of full- and part-time jobs have been created. The linkages between the food and tourism industries create a synergy in the region, with high-quality local food being served in many restaurants and accommodations, and becoming an integral part of visitors’ quality experience. As one visitor put it, “something like Milleens cheese typifies West Cork – good quality, local and delicious.”

Fuchsia Brands’ influence is felt outside County Cork as well – tourism managers from throughout Europe, Australia and the United States have sought advice and guidance from its brand management, hoping to replicate Fuchsia’s success in their own destinations.

Ar scá a chéile – In the shelter of each other

More than a brand, more than a training program, more than a coveted logo, the Fuchsia Brand has proven itself to be a way of thinking, a vision born of united efforts and solidarity. Members think beyond their own interests – “It’s not just about getting visitors to come to my establishment,” says one, “it’s about luring them West.” They talk about working together, rather than against each other. And they realize that if they all unite in their efforts to bring visitors to the region, they’ll all share in the benefits. The Fuchsia logo is a source of pride, tangible proof of a commitment to quality and excellence. Through almost 20 years of planning, discussing and innovative thinking, the men and women behind the Fuchsia Brand have built on the rich traditions of West Cork to create a destination that is truly “A Place Apart.”

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