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Autum - Winter 2007

Marketing Welsh in an ambivalent context, by Colin H. Williams

My purpose is twofold: first, to relate how the marketing issues of Welsh have been handled within a largely hegemonic English private sector and secondly to illustrate the approach to language marketing undertaken by the Welsh Language Board, thereby demonstrating how current strategy is tackling the issue of the under representation of Welsh within the economy. In comparison with Catalonia, Quebec or several other parts of the world, there is a relative paucity in Wales of operating multilingual enterprises and consequently little documented evidence of the relationship between majority and minority languages within the economy. This paper illustrates some of the initiatives undertaken in Wales recently but also points to some of the structural difficulties which any language revitalisation strategy will face in seeking to influence consumer behaviour in theprivate sector.

The Board has long realised that its first challenge was to increase the opportunities available to speak and use Welsh in a variety of contexts, and it has succeeded to a remarkable degree in transforming the linguistic landscape. A more profound challenge is to encourage people to take advantage of such opportunities and in this respect marketing, particularly to the private sector, will continue to grow as a key instrument of the Board’s repertoire, the more so as it shares good practice and learns from the experiences of its European partners in the Language Planning Network

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1. Introduction

My purpose is twofold: first, to relate how the marketing issues of Welsh have been handled within a largely hegemonic English private sector and secondly to illustrate the approach to language marketing undertaken by the Welsh Language Board, thereby demonstrating how current strategy is tackling the issue of the under representation of Welsh within the economy. In comparison with Catalonia, Quebec or several other parts of the world, there is a relative paucity in Wales of operating multilingual enterprises and consequently little documented evidence of the relationship between majority and minority languages within the economy.(1)

The UK economy, and more particularly its marketing, advertising and selling divisions, operates in a diverse linguistic manner. English is dominant, but given the global basis of many of its companies there is a surprisingly large multilingual presence reflected both in its personnel and in the information supplied with supporting documentation and advertising. Added to this is the increasingly multicultural basis of the UK population and the sophisticated nature of marketing techniques designed to appeal to niche target audiences, both at home and abroad. Greater London contains the most diverse multilingual population within the EU. One-third of London’s primary school children have a first language other than English.The Inner London Education Authority records over 148 distinct mother tongue languages spoken at home. Clearly then parts of the UK have a strong multilingual character despite the apparently poor reputation Britons have for learning other languages.

In Wales there is the added dimension of promoting the Welsh language within as many spheres as is practicable. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century Welsh figured prominently within the industrial export-oriented economy based on coal, iron, steel and slate which animated the rise of world capitalism. Between 1870 and 1918 the world price for coal, copper and tinplate was set in the Financial Exchanges of Cardiff and Swansea and Welsh speaking industrialist, engineers, craftsmen, mariners and labourers contributed to the industrial development of Europe, North America, South Africa, Australasia and Latin America. The Welsh language dominated the rural economy and agricultural services of Wales. Consequently Welsh has a very rich repertoire of specialist terms, vocabulary, dictionaries and technical literature suited both to the agrarian and heavy industrial sectors. Thus current attempts to influence the economy are more about regaining lost ground than they are penetrating entirely new spheres for the Welsh language. However, throughout the twentieth century Anglicisation and the closer integration of Wales within the British state and public life lead to a decline of the language and to a loss of purchase in several key sectors. Initial attempts to revitalise Welsh in the fifties and sixties concentrated on the education system and the public sector and it is only in the past fifteen years that a sustained attempt has been made to influence the private sector also. The advent of formal language planning has created an opportunity to think strategically about the future of the Welsh language which has developed a momentum of its own which is now showing some real results.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 provided a statutory framework for the treatment of English and Welsh on the basis of equality. Its chief policy instrument was the strengthened Welsh Language Board, established on 21 December 1993, as a non-departmental statutory organisation.(2) It had three main duties:

  • Advising organisations which were preparing language schemes on the mechanism of operating the central principle of the Act, that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on a basis of equality.
  • Advising those who provide services to the public in Wales on issues relevant to the Welsh language.
  • Advising central government on issues relating to the Welsh language.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 details key steps to be taken by the Welsh Language Board and by public sector bodies in the preparation of Welsh language schemes.(3) These language schemesare designed to implement the central principle of the Act, which is to treat Welsh and English on the basis of equality, and they are the principal instrument by which the promotion of Welsh in the public sector is to be secured.Between 1995 and 1999 a total of 67 language schemes had been approved including all 22 local authorities. On the eve of UK devolution in 1999 notices had been issued to a further 59 bodies to prepare schemes.(4) By today some 334 schemes have been approved and the Board has developed a mature approach to their approval and implementation. Undoubtedly such schemes have been very instrumental in changing the character of bilingual services within public authorities, but just how effective they have been in changing the linguistic choice and behaviour of both providers and the general public is difficult to evaluate.(5)

The Welsh Language Board’s strategic goal is to enable the language to become self-sustaining and secure as a medium of communication in Wales. It has set itself four priorities; 1) to increase the numbers of Welsh-speakers; 2) to provide more opportunities to use the language; and 3) change the habits of language use and encourage people to take advantage of the opportunities provided, and 4) to strengthen Welsh as a community language,

The phrase ‘promotion’ figures strongly in the Board’s public statements and language marketing initially was seen as an adjunct to the Board’s attempt to establish the legitimacy of using Welsh within as many domains as practicable. Throughout its first decade the Board undertook a policy of consensus building, in accordance with the wishes of the political elite to depoliticise the language. Stealth politics rather than enforcement and confrontation were the order of the day.

Historically the Board has focussed its activities on the public sector because it had a statutory remit to promote Welsh and this was the basis of its legitimacy in law and fact (Williams 2005).(6) A critical area of sociolinguistic maintenance is language transmission both within the family and within the education system. Thus in the mid-nineties a campaign was launched to boost language acquisition, principally through the statutory 5-16 age education provision, life long learning, and latecomer centres. In the late nineties the Board experimented in marketing the language to young parents so that they would transmit Welsh to their children. This initiative developed into the successful TWF Family Language Transfer programme, which has been extended to several locations in Wales.The project sought to use the influence of midwives and health professionals to inform young parents of the advantages of raising their children bilingually.

Once the Board’s legitimacy to operate as an element of public service and community life was established, the Board turned to several outstanding issues of which it had been aware for some years. The chief issue was the recognition that to be truly effective holistic language planning has to address the economic and commercial influences on language choice and social behaviour. Thus within the statutory remit to promote Welsh, the Board has gradually placed a greater emphasis on marketing a wide range of activities so as to make the experience of using Welsh a more positive feature of social life. Marketing any language is a process fraught with difficulties because it is hard to derive a cause and effect interpretation of the impact of many marketing campaigns. The only certain rule in this field is the law of unintended consequences. Prediction is more of an art than a science for language marketing, more likely to have an indirect and cumulative effect on decision making and behaviour, rather than an identifiably trajectory with known outcomes.(7)

In 2001 the Board hosted international seminars on language marketing as a prelude to developing its own initiatives in the field. The chief lesson learned was that whereas the public sector could be influenced directly by ideological, legislative and political processes, commercial organizations needed sound economic reasons for using a regional or minority language. In situations, such as Catalonia or Quebec, where the target language is spoken by a majority, it was possible to adopt a legislative approach to language promotion, relying on the courts to uphold government policy within the private sector.(8) But in minority situations, where binding legislation is not an option, there is a pressing need for sound arguments, innovative marketing and cost-benefit analysis to justify the increased utility of the former discriminated language.

Thus the crunch question was how would marketing the language fit into the wider Board strategy and how could quite distinct target audiences, including many within theprivate sector, be reached? It is claimed that the economic benefits of the Welsh language are increasingly being recognized in terms ofimproving the quality of customer service; attracting new customers; increasing customer loyalty; harnessing goodwill at relatively low cost ;gaining a marketing edge over competitors ; enhancing public relations effort. If so why the need to market a language?

The principal justification is that employing a minority language, such as Welsh, is a USP (unique selling point) which differentiates companies from their competitors. But there are many other reasons for arguing that private companies should use Welsh more, such as the fact that it demonstrates pride and respect for regional culture and community; that is, it gives a local focus to multinationals; it can help attract new customers; it generates good will and loyalty among customers; it improves the perceived quality of products and services; it enhances public relations activities; it is perceived to be part of the current best practice in communication; it introduces an element of surprise (WLB, 2001).

Marketing in minority languages is not without its difficulties. Costs are perceived as a major barrier to the widespread adoption of more sympathetic use of the minority language. There is no doubt that bi/multi-lingualism involves an additional cost to operators. But initial cynicism can be overcome by a progressive introduction of bilingual practices, by phased, well-planed developments and by setting realistic budgets, by adapting work practices, enhanced staff training, and by influencing customer perception. In time the start up costs become absorbed as general running costs and this figures as an improvement in the company’s profile.

Basic marketing principles can also be employed to define the product, define the market(s), and inform the effective introduction of a product within the available resources (human and financial) and to conduct research and evaluation.

Undoubtedly the socio linguistic context is critical to success. Thus it is pertinent to ask whether there are any political, legislative or socio-psychological reasons for using any selected language‘(s)? These would include whether or not the target language was sufficiently robust to be used in marketing campaigns and new product design? What percentage of the relevant population speaks or understands the target language? What is the level of literacy in the minority language? Are there age, gender or regional differences in the quality of spoken and written languages? Are there different language combinations among different age/ethnic groups? Is language choice a desired goal?

Such context-related issues are vital, but independent of the actual marketing campaigns adopted. Thus at all levels cost-effective bilingual marketing has to take account of a number of other issues. At the level of an individual company these might include the refurbishing or opening of new premises; the renewing of signage; reviewing corporate identity; ordering new stationery; recruiting new members of staff; developing new products or services; targeting new markets; reprinting literature or creating new material; devising new point of sales materials; developing websites or adapting IT provision; local sponsorship possibilities; new direct mail campaigns or newsletters.

Other issues raised in the ‘Marketing in Minority Languages’ seminars(WLB 2001) focussed on best practice in marketing. International participants agreed that when the two target languages are used in advertising or in product design they should be of equal size, readability and profile. When producing information of any kind, the principles of integrated bilingualism suggest that the customer should be able to read both languages side by side. However, if separate language versions are required, both should be equally accessible and the minority language version should not be of inferior quality. Decisions need to be made as to whether to adopt a formal or informal style language. A preference was expressed that material was usually more user-friendly in the target language. As translation is a specialist skill, the temptation to do it cheaply should be avoided as errors are expensive to correct after materials and signs are produced. Clearly in well-developed languages with a supportive infra-structure, continuous up-dating of spell-checkers, glossaries and specialist dictionaries is required. Given the paucity of resources there is an understandable tendency to focus only on the most visible aspects of marketing such as signage, logos and corporate identities. But to be truly effective minority language promotion should also consider print material, communication, correspondence and e-mail, packaging and product labelling, advertising and publicity, IT and ATMs, promotional campaigns and public relations together with consciousness raising both for employees and the customers.

Even if such practices are adopted there is a tendency to assume that they automatically promote the increased use of a minority language. Verification of such effectiveness is often sought in mass survey questionnaires.However, attitudinal evidence and actual behaviour change are two very different aspects of this conundrum. Thus there is a constant need for research and training. Companies need to undertake linguistic skills audits; communication training, monitoring and evaluation, systematic sampling of good practice from elsewhere, mainstream the language dimensions into economic behaviour and choice, undertake time-series data collection. These issues, though often advocated, are rarely adopted in real–world situations for the reasons offered by Puigdevall and Williams (2002).


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