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Marketing Welsh in an ambivalent context, by Colin H Williams


An acute issue which influences initial behaviour is how one identifies the minority speaker on first contact. The onus if often put on the employees by wearing a name badge or other symbol which suggests the ability to operate in more than one target language. Thus greeting and thanking become important signifiers of behaviour and of customer satisfaction. A more thorough adoption of the target language has implications for recruiting and training, for the respect of customer rights or expectations. This aspect has received a fair deal of attention in Wales through the operation of language agencies such as Cwmni Iaith Cyf (9) who specialise in undertaking language skills audits and   training plans. However, far less attention has been paid to workers expectations, fears and language rights. In part this is because of a relative lack of interest in this issue by the larger trade unions and the Wales CBI, together with the relative absence of court-cases to test the resolve of major corporations. Influential individuals and human rights organisations in Wales, such as Cefn (10) have fought to secure a more equal treatment of workers, but their success has been sporadic and legislation in this field is woefully underdeveloped.

It is evident that dealing with private sector variables, motivations and structures requires not only a different form of language planning initiatives but also the commitment of hitherto reluctant participants in the process. Too often there has been an assumption that conventional language planning practices derived essentially from public sector experience will automatically transfer to the private sector, with or without little modification. This will not suffice any longer. We need to engage in more sustainable methods of language intervention in the private sector.

2. SMEs and Welsh

Little detailed knowledge and systematic data are available to interpret and work for the promotion of Welsh in the private sector. This is a serious weakness and hampers the planning process. A recent research project by Puigdevall i Serralvo (2006) sought to investigate how and under what conditions Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) could be encouraged to be more responsive to the needs of the Welsh speaking consumer, worker and employer.

Empirical fieldwork was undertaken on a range of SMEs in the predominantly Welsh speaking areas of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. The SMEs were located in the sectors of food and drink manufacture, tourism, retailing and services. The research sought to illuminate the following questions:

  • What is the interrelationship between the economy and the Welsh language? [E ®¬ L]
  • How can the Welsh language and its associated culture be mobilised as assets to contribute to improving the economy? [L ® E]
  • In what way does strengthening the economy impact upon language use? [E ® L]
  • Under what conditions do companies choose to promote Welsh as a language of the workplace and/or a language for marketing purposes and self-identification?
  • What are the barriers which militate against the more widespread use of Welsh even within those companies who use Welsh to a certain extent?
  • What advantages and disadvantages do companies claim they derive from operating in a bilingual fashion?

The research project also sought to investigate some policy implications such as:-

To what extent and in what manner are such issues capable of being influenced by the policies of official agencies such as the Welsh Language Board and Menter a Busnes (Enterprise and Business Agency) and the political decisions of the National Assembly for Wales?

  • What specific practices are employed by SMEs to nurture the greater use of Welsh?
  • To what extent is there a significant economic difference if the language promotion is undertaken on behalf of a target group by a state agency, and to what extent are the considerations altered if the promotional work is undertaken by the speakers themselves within the community and local economy?

Puigdevall i Serralvo (2006)sampled 33 companies from the food and drink manufacturing, tourism and leisure, retailing and service sectors, with special attention to information technology, design and printing businesses. The fieldwork elucidated the use of Welsh in eight aspects of a company’s activities namely: employment, recruitment and training; services and image; the costs and benefits of bilingualism for the company; problems and concerns; their needs andknowledge of support services related to increasing the use of the language; the cost-effectiveness of advertising and labellingbilingually; their expectations for the future in relationto the actions of the National Assembly for Wales and to significant actors within the private sector.

The results reveal that Welsh is used more in oral communications than in written transactions where there is a general lack of competence in Welsh written skills. Welsh speaking managers and owners were more proactive in the use of Welsh in their companies than non-Welsh speaking businessman and women. Welsh was deemed to be useful for many situations, and most managers and owners valued Welsh speaking employees. However, the research revealed that Welsh speaking customers switched easily from Welsh to English and did not complain about the lack of such services through the medium of Welsh. In addition the Welsh language has a positive symbolic value for marketing and labelling purposes in all companies.

In companies which have a strong presence of Welsh speaking staff, Welsh has a communicative function both for internal administrative purposes and in dealing with customers. Being able to provide services in Welsh is one of their main differentiation assets as they attract Welsh speaking customers whose preferred language is Welsh.A second group of companies, whose main working language is English, can adapt to accommodate those customers who choose to use Welsh. However, for companies whose exclusive working language is English, even if there might be a fairly important presence of Welsh speaking staff, the Welsh language has a symbolic function for product differentiation, but the daily use of Welsh is very marginal.

The research identified that there is a need to consciously seek opportunities to add value to economic development – i.e. to increase and improve the quality of its impact; and at the same time add value to linguistic development.For example, in considering the need to take advantage of the ‘Knowledge Economy’, in addition to the technical skills (scientific, engineering, and computing) and the value added skills represented by linguistic diversity, there is need for less obvious skills such as creativity and imagination.Traditionally these skills have a high priority in Welsh language culture, but tend to be more prevalent in literature and the arts than in enterprise and commerce.Developing these latter opportunities could be explored creatively in a way that integrates with other trends such as developing the ability of people in Wales to improve the quality of their economic activity; targeting economic sectors which have significant bilingual potential; enabling the private and public sectors jointly to develop sectors and opportunities in proactive ways; focussing on building new skills, especially within Information and Communication Technology (ICT); together with integrating developments in infrastructure, property rights, land use and regional economic planning. (Williams and Puigdevall i Serralvo, 2002). SMEs are rightly regarded as a major contributor to economic and community stability and are now being re-assessed because two decades of attracting capital intensive inward investment has not brought the required spread of jobs, especially in peri-rural areas.

3. Larger Enterprises and Welsh

But what of the larger enterprises, how do they fare in relation to the promotion and use of the Welsh language? While large multinational enterprises are well used to operating multilingual, until recently such companies were antipathetic to the use of Welsh, for they were neither required by law nor obliged by significant consumer demand to use Welsh in their advertising, marketing and service divisions. Historically consumer complaints and the campaigns of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and Cefn had proved vital in drawing attention to the inequities in the treatment of Welsh and English within the private sector. Nevertheless by a judicious mix of public initiative and private persuasion, several leading enterprise in the retail, insurance, banking and utilities sectors have employed Welsh to very good effect. In seeking to persuade companies to adopt Welsh, the Welsh Language Board’s Private Sector team has adopted a two-pronged approach. The first is to convince companies of the economic and social worth of operating bilingually by offering advice and, business grants which allow companies to produce bilingual materials. This has extended to Linkline Welsh which offers a short translation and menu translation service as well as the Iaith Gwaith/Working Welsh scheme to show customers that a Welsh language service is available.

The second tactic is to develop a personal dialogue with key personnel in the target company. Thus Team Members from the WLB would liaise with, for example, Marks and Spencer, when they were opening a new store in Bangor in 2005, to make extensive use of Welsh in their signs, communications and store layout. The same approach was adopted when Ikea opened their store in Cardiff in 2003. Prior to this key banks such as HSBC and influential companies such British Telecom, Tesco and Asda, had adopted a systematic bilingual policy which ranged from their iconography, customer relations, billing services and complaints to their financial support for national Welsh language promotional events, such as the annual WLB Bilingual Design Awards and Learner of the Year Prizes. In such a manner selected international companies become more identified with Wales and with the health of the Welsh language in particular.

Several comments may be made about this trend. First it is a very welcome development for it identifies Welsh with modernity, with success and with ‘normal’ everyday commercial activities. Second providing a bilingual service not only satisfies customer demand but it also provides employment opportunities for those with the appropriate linguistic and professional skills, further strengtheningthe argument that bilingualism is an economic asset.Thirdly identifying Welsh as one of a number of languages which may be used by a High Street Bank, insurance company or supermarket chainnormalises the language and reduces the insidious accusation that Welsh is a dead or irrelevant language. However, there is a down side also. The most troubling is the relatively low take-up to rate of selected services, whether it be ATM banking services in Welsh, billing requests or use of Welsh language customer support help-lines. In time if such activities do not reach a satisfactory threshold then enterprises may be required to rethink their bilingual strategies. The second worrying trend is that most of these services represent a thin patina of bilingualism; once the initial point of contact has been passed it becomes very difficult to engage with the personnel of large enterprises through the medium of Welsh in most cases.

The Welsh Language Board is conscious of these lacunae and has recently launched its Language Strategy for the Private Sector up to July 2009. (WLB July 2006). The strategy’s core message is that Welsh and bilingualism areassets to any business in Wales, and that it is a modern medium whichshould be adopted, to varying degrees, by the whole range of companieswho have a presence in Wales.(11) The strategy is comprised of a contextual interpretation and an action plan for implementingthe strategy which identifies the main audiences (consumers as well as companies) and the businesseswhich should be targeted as a priority, the practical support which can be offered, the most effective ways of working with partners, and the need for regular research and evaluation. Two interesting developments are the idea of extending agreed language schemes to the private sector and encouraging elements within the public sector which have a Welsh Language Scheme to demand that their third party suppliers from the private sector who undertake contract work comply with the requirements of their language schemes. Both of these initiatives will extend the practice of operating bilingually somewhat.

The strategy’s implementation is focussed mainly on high profile companies such as supermarkets, retails parks, high street chain stores, banks, utility companies and mobile phone companies.The main emphasis is on increasing the use of the language visually and aurally withinthese companies and also orally by staff when in direct contact with Welsh speaking customers. The Board has determined the following action points for its strategy:-

i) Identify and target 20 major companies with the intention of getting them to commit to make significantly more visual and aural use of Welsh within their businesses.

ii) Build on existing relationships and create new links within target companies.

iii) Maintain a working relationship with key individuals by regular correspondence and meetings to persuade and provide support with regards to the use of Welsh.

iv) Work with Local Authorities and the Board’s Local Authority Unit to encourage the use of bilingual signage as part of the processes of planning permission for newdevelopments.

v) Refer companies to providers of language awareness and training sessions for staff on how to deal politely and efficiently with customers who request a service through the medium of Welsh.

vi) Create and update relevant case studies for each sector in order to encourage competition and show how Welsh can bring added value to a business, as well ascommercial benefit.

vii) Encourage and assist large companies to produce language policies. We will facilitate this by producing simple sector specific templates which will be available on-line for use by companies. (Welsh Language Board, 2006b).

A second focus is that which Menter a Busnes and Williams and Puigdevall identified in the nineties, namely the SMEs whose owners are supportive of the language or who have a good proportion of Welsh-speaking staff. The Board recognises that such companies form the backbone of Welsh-speaking communities and increasing their use of Welsh go some way to normalising the se of Welsh on a daily basis in the business world.(12)

This campaign draws on earlier WLB marketing and private sector activity which offers practical support in the following manner.


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