Creating a new brand for Wales

Wales has seen a significant increase in overseas visitors since the launch of a new marketing campaign and national branding by Cardiff and Amsterdam agency Smörgåsbord. Creative director Dylan Griffith talks us through the challenges and steps involved in creating a brand identity for the country

Wales is home to beautiful beaches, dramatic mountain ranges and more castles than any other country in Europe. But it has often struggled to attract as many overseas tourists as its UK neighbours.

More than one million visitors travelled to Wales from overseas last year compared to 2.7 million in Scotland and 2.6 million in Northern Ireland (which has seen a major boost since Game of Thrones began filming in the country).

Wales’ failure to attract as many external visitors has been attributed to budget cuts and a lack of inspiring marketing campaigns – but all this may change with the launch of the country’s new branding and a number of themed campaigns promoting Wales as a place of adventure and legends.

Last year, Visit Wales launched a campaign inviting visitors to (somewhat ungrammatically) ‘Find Your Epic’. The film showed people climbing mountains, kayaking and horse-riding along windswept beaches and was the first to feature Wales’ new branding by Cardiff and Amsterdam agency Smörgåsbord.

Smörgåsbord was commissioned by the Welsh government following a successful pitch to create an identity system that could be used across the tourism, business and food and drink sectors. The branding features a redrawn Welsh dragon, original photographs of the Welsh landscape and a bespoke typeface, Cymru Wales Sans, created with London foundry Colophon.

The tourism campaign was rolled out across print, TV and cinema ads. Visit Wales claims it has generated an extra £370 million for the Welsh economy – an increase on 18% from the year before – and Wales reported a 12% increase in overseas visitors for the first nine months of 2016.

The Welsh government has since launched a GP recruitment campaign, a campaign to promote trade and investment and another to promote the UEFA Champions League Final back in June, all featuring Smörgåsbord’s branding. Visit Wales’ 2017 marketing campaign – titled the Year of Legends – was launched in March and stars Welsh actor Luke Edwards:

So how do you go about creating a new brand identity that can be used for tourism and business campaigns – one that will capture all the best bits of Wales while also showing a new side to the country?

Dylan Griffith, creative director at Smörgåsbord, says the agency spent four or five months doing research and speaking with stakeholders before starting work on the design. “We talked it through with the client, with crucial stakeholders in the business community and the tourism industry to ask them what they felt [the branding] needed,” he says.

Smörgåsbord asked tourism stakeholders how they might like to use the new branding. The agency also worked with people from across the business and food and drink sectors to establish what assets they might need to attract foreign investment and promote Welsh produce. “It’s crucial to get everybody behind a project before we get into discussions about typefaces and colour palettes and the look and feel of the mark,” explains Griffith.

The redrawn Welsh dragon. Images courtesy Smörgåsbord

Alongside this, Smörgåsbord looked at branding for other countries (including Scandinavian nations and New Zealand, which has a similar-sized population). The agency then devised five key objectives for the brand identity. The first was to elevate the status of Wales; the second was to “surprise and inspire” and the third to “reinforce positive perceptions” of Wales. The fourth objective was “to do good things” and the fifth was to create something “unmistakably Wales”.

It was important that we didn’t come up with a very nicely crafted but bland solution

“These core objectives served as a checklist when we were developing the brand and also for the government. It was something we could cross-reference all the time,” says Griffith. “There’s been a trend in recent years – not a trend as such, but a movement kicked off by the Swedish nation [which launched new branding in 2013] – and now lots of people are keen to investigate how nation brands can elevate their status and promote the country globally, but it was important to us that we didn’t come up with a very nicely crafted but bland solution – which is why that fifth core objective was to be ‘unmistakably Wales’.”

Redrawing the Welsh dragon

The first element to be designed was a symbol based on the dragon in the Welsh flag. “When you do an inventory of world flags, it’s fair to say using a dragon is not that common. The Bhutanese flag also features a dragon but it’s a far more Asiatic affair. You’re instantly drawn to [the Welsh flag] because it’s not just block colours – it’s a mythical beast and for that reason it stands out and it’s very iconic, so we just wanted to leverage the power of the flag in the core marque,” explains Griffith. “I don’t think it’s particularly advanced thinking – it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Smörgåsbord drew around 500 versions of the dragon before reaching the final design: “We started the process by doing an inventory, looking at illustrations of dragons that were already out there and we focused on the ones we thought were the strongest. It really did take around 500 attempts to get something that feels contemporary and timeless and instantly recognisable,” says Griffith.

The marque now features across all communications and gives the Welsh government an instantly recognisable symbol that can be scaled up and down and used alone or alongside the name of the country. “We wanted something that could live without the Cymru Wales typeface attached to it and I think the government have been very bold in their use of it since the rebrand,” says Griffith. “They will often use just the dragon as a sign-off, which I think is a good endorsement [of the symbol].”

Creating a unique font

After creating the dragon, the agency worked with London type foundry Colophon to create a bespoke typeface incorporating glyphs that are unique to the Welsh language. The typeface is a core part of the identity and reflects the aim to create something “unmistakably Welsh”.

“We have a distinctive language in Wales and I felt like the language could be used as a real differentiator [in the branding],” says Griffith. The Welsh alphabet has 28 characters and eight of these are formed from digraphs – two letters placed side by side that together, form one sound. Smörgåsbord claims the typeface is the first font to incorporate diagraphs and Griffith says Cymru Wales Sans has become “the golden thread” running throughout the identity.

Colophon and Smörgåsbord created different versions of certain characters. A more neutral design is used for business communications while alternate letters with more character are used in tourism campaigns (see the h in this is Wales below).

“A lot of people view the dragon as the hero element – and quite rightly so – but the typeface has proven to be the thread that runs through the whole rebrand. It’s something you instantly recognise as different and unique,” says Griffith.

Defining the Welsh colour palette

Smörgåsbord studied photographs of Wales and selected 18 colours to represent the country (each colour is named after a different part of the country). “For me, looking at all the greens and reds and blues, I associate those with Wales as I know it. Whether it’s the coast of Pembrokeshire or Snowdonia, [the colours] just feel right to me,” says Griffith.

The agency also commissioned photographs of some of Wales’ best-known landmarks and most picturesque views for the branding. Griffith says the aim was to balance the need to promote key tourist destinations with the desire to show a different or unexpected side to Wales.

Wales Branding at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Image courtesy the Welsh government

A different side to Wales

“It would be foolish not to feature a castle and some of the awesome landscapes in Wales but we wanted to feature people in them as well,” says Griffith. “We shot the Snowdonia national park, the Cardigan Bay coast line, the Brecon Beacons – we’re somewhat spoilt in Wales and it’s very compact [the Brecon Beacons national park is less than 90 minutes’ drive from Swansea], so we wanted to get across the sheer diversity and accessibility of the country – and then as a counterpoint to those incredible open spaces, we wanted to focus on coastal communities and market towns and also larger cities like Swansea and Cardiff.”

Much of the photography is rotated 90 degrees: “That comes back to shifting people’s perceptions [of Wales] and it creates a very graphic look and feel,” says Griffith. A horizon device provides another nod to the Welsh flag: infographics and ads feature contrasting blocks of colour, reminiscent of the green and white in the country’s flag, while an ad from a GP recruitment campaign features contrasting photographs arranged side by side.

A GP recruitment campaign. Image courtesy the Welsh government 

Not everyone will spot this device but it helps set the Welsh government’s communications apart from other campaigns using similarly lovely photographs of the country. “Sometimes it’s subconscious and other times it’s more obvious but I think – as with any brand identity – not everything needs to be front and foremost all the time. It’s nice when people can work things out by themselves, so they might not see that horizon element is a recurring theme until maybe the third or fourth viewing,” adds Griffith.

The tone of voice is intended to sound “confident and unpretentious,” says Griffith. The strap line ‘This is Wales’ has a directness about it but it also invites people to reconsider what they might know about the country. The phrase has not been directly translated for Welsh communications – Smörgåsbord has avoided directly translating any statements into Welsh in favour of a more playful approach. The Welsh strap line is fy ngwlad, fy ngwlad, which translates as ‘my country, my country’ – a reference to the Welsh national anthem.

“We never slavishly translate and we always try and offer something extra in the Welsh language,” says Griffith. “Everyone who speaks Welsh can speak English, so there’s no point in doing a direct translation.”

An outsider’s perspective

Griffith is Welsh but has spent the past few years based in Amsterdam and often ran the branding past colleagues and friends in the Netherlands while working on the project.

“I was born in Wales and have lived there for most of my life but the fact that I’ve lived in Amsterdam for the past nine years gave me a certain objectivity. I could see Wales from the outside and I could see its strengths,” he says. “Most of the team [that worked on the project] are Welsh but I think it’s important to mix any design team up with a few different nationalities because they all bring [different perspectives] to the table.”

National branding and tourism campaigns can often veer towards either pastiche or a design that looks great but could represent anywhere. Visit Wales has managed to avoid cliche while highlighting what Wales is known for – its great coastline and rugged hills – while also creating something that feels fresh and contemporary.

The branding in place at Cardiff Airport. Image courtesy the Welsh government
This is Wales, a trade and investment publication

The importance of focus groups

The branding has been introduced steadily and Griffith says the response from both Welsh residents and visitors has been positive so far. The agency carried out focus groups with people across Wales to ensure that the campaign would resonate with the public – a wise decision for a government-funded branding project representing the nation.

“Designers often tend to hold focus groups with a fair amount of suspicion but at the end of the day, you’re talking about your potential audience and you need to take their points on board because quite often, they’ll come up with things you hadn’t considered,” says Griffith. “We took all the feedback [from focus groups] on board – nothing huge was thrown up, so we felt confident we were on the right track but it’s always good to sense check a project of this scale.”

There is no concrete evidence of the branding’s success but the increase in overseas tourism last year is encouraging. The project has also been shortlisted for the Beazley Designs of the Year Award and will be showcased in an exhibition at the Design Museum later this year.

It certainly seems to be having an effect – not only in terms of how people outside of Wales perceive it but also how Welsh people perceive their own country

“You can’t quantify [the impact of the branding] directly but it certainly seems to be having an effect – not only in terms of how people outside of Wales perceive it but also how Welsh people perceive their own country. It’s created a feel-good factor,” says Griffith.

With public finances under increasing pressure, any public branding project is likely to come under scrutiny. But the Welsh branding has avoided the backlash that similar designs often face. The branding gives Wales a more confident and consistent voice and has been applied to everything from food and drink magazines to Cardiff Airport and stands at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium.

“I really do think if done well, [investing in place branding] can bring a lot of benefits – [but] you know you’ve got to dig deeper than aesthetics. Yes it’s got to look good and feel good but it needs to deliver,” adds Griffith. Smörgåsbord’s branding for Wales seems to be doing just that.

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