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Why the independence referendum offers brands in Scotland a great opportunity

A previous Tennents ad campaign

While recent polls suggest a significant number of undecided voters in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, one thing is clear: this momentous event offers great opportunity for all those working in marketing in Scotland.

Scots are being asked a very big question about their future. This in turn has created an environment where businesses, brand owners and those who work in marketing are asking themselves similarly fundamental questions. These are questions that concern the future livelihood of their business and brands. What may previously have been considered unimaginable has now become realistic to consider. What a great opportunity.

Added impetus for radical thinking comes from the fact that the current political debate has already placed Scotland much more firmly on the world stage. When Obama is referring to us in the context of the Ukraine crisis and we are clearly causing a degree of conversation (and maybe even consternation) in the corridors of Brussels and certain European capitals, then we need to respond with big thinking.

This kind of profile clearly offers a real opportunity for anything Scottish to capitalise on greater global profile than has been the case in the last few decades. The whole debate and exposure gives brands with any sense of ‘Scottishness’ the opportunity to stand out from the generic UK crowd. Highland Spring, Walkers Shortbread and Baxter’s Soups come to mind immediately.

For some brands, I would suggest that there is even the chance to build on the spirit of independence and maybe even ‘rebelliousness’ associated with a more proudly separate Scotland. This could work for brands such as Cutty Sark or J&B for example. I am definitely envious of the new pathways this sentiment opens up for the creative brains behind Scottish brands such as Tennent’s or Irn Bru. (Indeed, Irn Bru maker AG Barr may already be seeing evidence of the benefit of strongly Scottish branding with the recent release of a sparkling set of full-year numbers.)

We also expect that this year’s Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup – both to be hosted on Scottish soil – will provide a significant boost to tourist numbers and shine a timely spotlight north of the border. Let’s not forget that the newly alive brand that is Scotland will have things that many marketers spend years trying to achieve: increased awareness, an enhanced sense of identity and clear differentiation. This will surely help 'Brand Scotland' in attracting additional tourists over the next few years and create wondrous opportunities for other Scottish brands and businesses.

On the other hand, I also wonder what a yes vote would mean for budgets in the public sector? As we have seen, Tourism Scotland will have benefited from enhanced profile, not only surrounding the debate, but from the key sporting events taking place on its doorstep. But what will happen to its budgets if the country votes yes I wonder? Will public purse strings be loosened or will they be tightened to make good on other campaign pledges?

Inevitably, while there are potential upsides, there are also downsides. If there is a no vote, and therefore a retention of something resembling the status quo, I fear it may, subconsciously at least, force marketers to retrench into more constrained and conservative thinking. If the decision really is no then the country, together with the marketing community, must stay positive and strive to build on the principles of what has been achieved this year in terms of open debate and fresh thinking in our daily work. Progress in the world cannot be achieved by reverting to old ways of thinking. We should keep alive the spirit of radical questioning that the referendum has fostered.

Whatever the outcome though, marketers in Scotland and those working further afield with Scottish brands have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do things differently. Scots are being forced to make a black or white decision about their future constitutional direction. That’s the kind of approach that leads to bold new ideas and ways of working. I think it is incumbent on those working in marketing and communications to capitalise on that spirit. After all, is it not such a search for bold thinking that gets us out of bed each morning? Make the most of it.

Hugh Baillie is CEO of FullSix London

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