Brand Insight in association withLBB's Brand Insight Features

The Irish Emigration Museum’s EPIC Journey to Becoming a World-Class Brand

Advertising Agency
Dublin 2, Ireland
The museum’s CEO Aileesh Carew and Catrióna Campbell, managing partner at The Public House, tell LBB's Zoe Antonov about building the brand’s positioning as an organisational idea and their ‘outcreate-versus-outspend’ philosophy
Founded in 2016 by Neville Isdell (himself an emigrant of Ireland and the former chair of Coca-Cola), EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum was created to honour the Irish diaspora abroad and recognise the vital contributions and monumental impact Irish people have made worldwide. As CEO Aileesh Carew says: “EPIC shares how the Irish have contributed to communities throughout the world and continue to do so through exhibitions, education programs and digital engagement.”

The museum surrounds personal emigrant perspectives with social and cultural contexts, so that visitors can gain an acute understanding of why a person left Ireland and the beliefs and heritage they brought with them abroad. 

But don’t get it twisted - EPIC isn’t just another museum with piles of information boards to read. The stories there are vibrant and interactive. The immersion once you walk through the doors is impressive. And the mission? “To offer an outstanding visitor experience that gives a deeper view on Irish identity and the impacts of Ireland’s emigrants and diaspora.”

A Mission to Become a World-Class Brand

Back when Neville set out to bring his EPIC vision to life, he said the experience had to be “world class” - two words Aileesh says the museum still abides by today. “While this hasn’t changed, we probably followed the path of most startups - taking a while to build our own confidence in who we are and what purpose we are fulfilling in people’s minds, outside of the obvious of being a visitor’s attraction.”

On that self discovery journey, EPIC found somebody who happens to share the brand’s commitment to remaining interesting and effective - its creative, strategy and design agency, The Public House, which has been the museum’s advertising partner for the past six years. This relationship was founded on the ambition to create work so impactful that “it makes its way into pub conversations.”

Catrióna Campbell, managing partner at The Public House, says, “What has shaped six years of collaboration and sustained growth was the assessment that EPIC had a world-class product but wasn’t yet a world-class brand. The museum had received international acclaim as the world’s first completely-digital museum.

"‘Making EPIC a world-class brand’ became our shared vision and defined every decision we made along this journey. It’s our north star.”

Understanding Irish emigration is one of the keys to understanding Irish people, and while other museums focus on immigration and what other people left behind, Aileesh explains that EPIC focuses on what the Irish bring with them and how they shape the world. This is the root of all communication coming out of The Public House and EPIC. 

The Public House’s philosophy shines through their work: ‘Boring Doesn’t Sell’. Catrióna explains that the agency works to get people to rethink their preconceptions about Ireland and Irish people, and to ultimately leave EPIC with a new level of understanding.

Prior to meeting the team at The Public House, Aileesh explains that EPIC had a tendency to focus on tactical advertising and short-term goals. It was TPH that quickly changed the game. “They helped us understand the importance of building a strong brand and focusing on a long-term vision.” Together, they came up with the museum’s brand strategy, purpose, and answered the question of: ‘Why should people visit?’. 

“We believe in doing things the right way,” says Catrióna. “And that really sets you up for enduring success. When EPIC agreed that we needed to invest in the brand foundations rather than jump straight into a tactical campaign, we knew there was potential for a great relationship. Both sides have invested in this, sharing information, problems and cups of tea. Ultimately, it’s that shared ambition that keeps us all moving forward.”

This shared ambition made their first work together in 2018 evergreen - “It is still as relevant today and forms the foundation from which we have built all other work,” shares Aileesh. “You never know at the beginning if it’s going to be a long partnership, but once you find an agency that gets you, they become a very critical part of your success.”

Brand Positioning: An Organising, Not Just a Communications Idea

Speaking of first projects, their beginnings were rather humble, as TPH’s first work for EPIC was a flyer. And yes, creating a piece of paper that will stand out on a shelf packed with other pieces of paper that are advertising to tourists might have been a challenging task, but TPH “came up trumps”, says Aileesh. “It was a simple visual of a single potato, along with the copy: ‘There’s more to us than…’. [It’s] a clever and effective way of encouraging tourists to visit EPIC to get a better understanding of what it really means to be Irish.”

The flyer’s vision was based on the insight that tourists visiting Dublin wanted to get under the skin of the country they were visiting, and take a deeper dive beyond Irish stereotypes wrongly tagged to the culture. “This was the clear brand positioning,” adds Catrióna.

“We wanted to show that brand positioning was an organising idea for EPIC, not just a communications idea. For a visitor attraction, the moment of truth for tourists is that leaflet in the tourism office or at the hotel. So, that’s why the flyer was our first project. And it’s still in use today!”

A clear brand positioning goes only half the way, though. A shared vision and a passion to constantly do better are what gets you over the line. “Good is never good enough,” says Aileesh. “And The Public House can always be relied upon to walk the extra mile for us as a client. The work we did back in 2018 on our brand pillars is our foundation and we always go back to our brand book, making sure our message is based on insights with clear strategic thinking every step of the way.”

Another important component of this relationship is honesty - both sides feel empowered to speak up when a stumbling block is reached. “Strong relationships are built through mutually-candid conversations and we’re both willing to have those, so that the relationship can grow,” says Aileesh. “As the relationship has grown, so has our friendship and there have been lots of laughs along the way too!”

Catrióna believes that the two sides also share a common frustration - EPIC, a genuinely world-class museum, isn’t yet a household name. “That frustration guides us forward and keeps pushing us to the next big brand moment: the next opportunity to create fame and get as many people as possible through the doors. We’re genuinely motivated to deliver against the business goal and make EPIC a Top-10 visitor destination.”

The common narrative of wanting to show visitors that there is far more to the Irish than the stereotypes reveal is what drives the work forward. “But we also don’t have the deepest pockets,” says Catrióna. “So we definitely adopt the ‘outcreate-versus-outspend’ philosophy that enables us to really challenge how, where and when we show up. It’s a very non-traditional account - always idea-led rather than channel-led.”

Big Commitments, Big Challenges

For Aileesh, the most difficult shared project for EPIC and THP was ‘Galway Bay’. It was also the brand’s most expensive project, which gave rise to some nervousness regarding its outcome. “The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ was released 36 years ago. It’s the quintessential Irish Christmas classic; a global anthem about Irish emigration that has over 325m listens on Spotify and 87m views on YouTube,” says Aileesh.

In the chorus of the PLL-recognised ‘most-played Christmas song of the 21st century’, Shane MacGowan sings “..the boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay…”. And while people all over the word love belting out that line, few know that there has never been an NYPD choir, nor has it sung Galway Bay. 

So, as champions of Irish emigrants, EPIC decided to bring this famed line to life and tell the story behind the timeless Irish classic, penned by another Irish emigrant - Dr. Arthur Colahan. “It was a tribute to his homeland and his brother,” explains Aileesh. “Last September, we assembled a handful of retired NYPD officers who, together with a local amateur choir, lent their voices to the beloved Galway Bay in a Brooklin recording studio.”

“Even if you instinctively believe in an idea 100%, you can’t guarantee it’s going to work,” says Catrióna. “You are asking a client to take that leap of faith and invest a lot of their marketing budget. Because of that, we shared this idea openly across EPIC and with their partners. It came down to the fact that we all believed it was a story that only EPIC could tell.” She says that there was a very recognisable ‘gut feeling’ involved in the ideation process. But it was backed by sound strategy and a “goose-bumpy” execution. 

This relentless focus on making EPIC famous and stretching the brand’s budget to its maximum potential has won the teams not one, but two Effie awards - the global symbol of achievement in effectiveness. In this achievement, the covid-19 pandemic played a role too - “It took the wind out of our sails,” admits Catrióna.

“With 48 weeks of closed doors, there was a real sense of urgency between EPIC and us to regain ground and make up for lost time.” And they did exactly that, with flying colours.

As tourism began recovering in 2022, the museum felt the time was right for a hard-hitting campaign to awaken market awareness and grow visitor numbers. The insight was simple - search data on Google showed that the stereotypes of the Irish are still, overwhelmingly, negative. ‘This Is Not Us’, a campaign that outrightly challenges these, launched July 2022 and ran to the end of August on all channels. It called attention to these harmful stereotypes, further promoted by predictive search engines. 

“To demand attention, we created a fictional character - Paddy McFlaherty, who is the embodiment of all the negative preconceptions that search engines complete when you begin typing ‘The Irish are known for…’,” says Aileesh. The campaign broke every target. It ran with ads on buses, train stations, posters all over town. Paddy grew larger than life on the back of buses, “fist raised and pint-half drunk.” In the next six weeks, EPIC’s landing page saw over 75,000 visits and reached 1.3 million people on social media. “We knew that what we had unlocked could be very powerful,” says Catrióna.

Planning accordingly and keeping long-term goals is something TPH and EPIC have got down to a science. But they’re also no strangers to spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment creative hits. When it became known that Irish-American US President Joe Biden was going to be visiting town, TPH knew there was a moment to be seized. But, with no budget put aside for the work, the two teams had to think outside the box and ensure they stood out amongst the fanfare.

“So, we took the opportunity to welcome President Joe Biden back to Irish soil and give him a crash course in All-Ireland slagging,” says Catrióna. “A topic we knew would ruffle a few feathers. The joke referred to an alleged curse which has been plaguing the Mayo inter-county gaelic football team for 72 years.” The agency created a single moving billboard, strategically placed in Mayo, where the President was due to speak, meaning they inadvertently got covered by major news outlets looking to get a shot of President Biden. 

“What followed was a national conversation with coverage on TV, press, and radio news, as well as social commentary and WhatsApp chats - and got us ostracised in County Mayo!”

Looking Back on Six Years of Partnership

After six years of brilliant work and brand-building together, informed by rigorous research and some good humour, TPH and EPIC are stronger than ever. When asked what advice Catrióna would give to other brands and agencies that want to harbour a similar relationship, she doesn’t hesitate. “Working with a client who genuinely sees creativity as the way to unlock business growth is crucial. Not on a whim, or a notion, but because it’s rooted in solid strategic thinking.” To brands with smaller budgets she says: “Invest at the outset in brand foundations, otherwise you will go the long way round for growth.”

Aileesh, on the other hand, leaves us with the best lesson the two parties have taken from each other: “Honesty is paramount. Be honest. If you feel like it’s not going in the right direction, pick up the phone or try to get away from the desk from time to time. A lunch, or coffee away from the desk helps clear the mind. Before all, we are one team.”

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