Red Hands Rising

Thu 28th May



Creating a County Brand

Branding can be a delicate process and it takes a number of key elements to work together in tandem to make it a success. Good brand agencies can help guide a business or organisation through the key areas such as communication, people, product and environment. However even with the most careful planning, it’s the end user – the consumers and stakeholders – that ultimately make the decision about a brand.

The greatest brand agency in the world was never going to save Ratner’s Jewellery Chain when the then chairman called some of its products ‘crap’. The company plunged into the red and closed 100s of shops. Clothing store GAP also invested heavily in a new identity, thinking it was a progressive move. I’m sure focus testing would have been a key part of the process, but within a week of launch, public outcry made them revert back to their old design.

So the role of the brand specialist/design team is to manage the key touch points for a new brand across the 4 key areas we’ve already touched on – communication, people, environment and product. If we apply this to a GAA County or club – the Communication is your message, your club or county website, your posters, leaflets, signage, social media, kits, anywhere you talk and communicate; the People are your players, members, supporters coaches, managers, committee members; the Environment is your pitches and club rooms; and the Product, well that’s our games and a fabulous product it is, a vast majority of the time.

To equate this to a commercial brand, we’ve all heard of BMW, one of the world’s leading car brands. You’ve seen, driven or been a passenger in one, you’ve seen the TV ads, the print ads and maybe even visited a showroom. Nothing in that showroom, or that TV/radio/print ad, has been created independently; they’ve all been created to get you into that showroom where the selling phase kicks in. The setting is plush, you get excellent service, the staff quickly know your name and somehow get your details. The product is there waiting for you in all its glory, lights bouncing off every gleaming surface, you have a glossy brochure with your car on a beautiful coast road at sunset. This is communication, environment, people and product all working together to achieve that end goal, a sale. Branding is not just the logo on the bonnet – it goes much much deeper than that.


The product is there waiting for you in all its glory, lights bouncing off every gleaming surface, you have a glossy brochure with your car on a beautiful coast road at sunset.

So applying this to a county, we’d need an unlimited budget, a team of highly skilled brand strategists, identity designers and a full time marketing team. Or foregoing that, a desire to make a change and some like-minded people that see the potential in doing things a little bit differently. Remember we’re talking over two decades ago and, at that time, Tyrone had no national silverware at adult level (one All-Ireland Final and one National League Final had been reached … but both had been lost) and there was certainly no Garvaghey nor even any word of anything like that.

We’ll not dwell on 1995 (Tyrone’s defeat in their second-ever All-Ireland Final) too long, it tends to make Tyrone people a little ill. We’ll move on to 1996, when the same fate awaited, a match earlier and with a bit more brutal of an effect. We were beaten by Meath in that All-Ireland Semi-Final in more ways than just the score. It was a beating too far in the eyes of a few die hard Tyrone fans. That beating awoke a feeling in Tyrone that has played its part in how we perceive Tyrone GAA today. It would be fair to say the modern Tyrone GAA brand emerged from that, though it had been kick-started by the Millennium Initiative in 1995.

Meath v Tyrone 1996

Graham Geraghty, Tyrone v Meath, All-Ireland Semi Final Aug 1996. Picture credit: Sportsfile.

The Millennium Initiative was to run to 2000 (hence the name) and was about a structured giving plan for Tyrone fans, aiming to raise £0.50m for the development of the GAA at County level in Tyrone. Fans and businesses agreed to donate to Tyrone GAA over an agreed period with funds going directly to the County Board coffers. It was so successful that it was decided to keep the model going but obviously after 2000 the name would have to change. This was the birth of Club Tyrone. Club Tyrone was the forerunner and has persisted as probably one of the most recognised GAA fundraising initiatives in the country. To date Club Tyrone has directly raised a staggering £5.6m for the development of the GAA and culture in Tyrone and has also levered in another £3.40m from other sources. That’s £9m and rising…

Okay, so where do we and branding fit in?

One of our first landlords as Lairdesign back in the nineties was also one of Millennium Initiative founders, Mark Conway. A man with a love for the GAA and the arts in all its forms. He kindly invited me to one of the meetings after doing some work for the Initiative and also creating the Club Tyrone logo – he felt that design had a role, but we weren’t 100% sure yet what that role would be. The Club Tyrone Committee was and remains the PR and Marketing Sub Committee of Tyrone GAA. In the books officially, I believe 4-5 people, but with some expertise drafted in. The group came from across Tyrone, represented a whole series of backgrounds, brought a batch of different skills to the table but shared the common bond of belief in and commitment to the GAA in our County.

This was a dedicated and single-minded group of Tyrone GAA men and women, with one clear agenda – “We’ll raise the funds, you (Tyrone GAA) then apply those funds to help Tyrone take that final step.”

I can remember my first meeting in the Glenavon Hotel, Cookstown, first Thursday of the month, meeting at 8, tea and sandwiches to be served at 9.30. Yes, an hour and a half GAA meeting! I don’t want to mention all the names, they would be all well known in Tyrone, but I did feel so far out of my depth. The flow of the meeting quickly got under way and one by one the members outlined their target list of people who would pay over £500 per year with basically nothing tangible in return.

Remember when this was? As it came round to me, none of my friends or contacts were going to be in the category, what was I doing there? It was one of those moments. So with a dry mouth and sweaty palms I offered the target figure of 1, myself! How will I explain this to my wife, also my accountant? My target is poor but that’s not really why I am here, I tried to explain in an honest way. I will never be good on the sales front but what I believe I can do is build up the profile of Club Tyrone, tell the story, advise how and where we tell it and in return that makes your jobs that little bit easier. A quarter of a century and over £9.00 m later, we’re still jointly working on that same brief today.

The plan was to use every tool at our disposal as a piece of Tyrone GAA propaganda. We seized all the Tyrone media outlets (well not as dramatic as that, looking at where we could tell our story most effectively and for as little money as possible.

Club Tyrone Logo

Tyrone Red Hand View

View the full Tyrone GAA brand story at

The key was communication, keep thanking the current members and work on non-members for not being members.

Like all good campaigns, we had a good story to tell, married with good design and images and an idea of the vehicles that were going to carry it. We took over the web in 2009, so well before the social media world! Our outlet was brochures, targeted sales events, some paid print advertising, annual reports and programmes. We took over the Tyrone National League programmes and the summer camps – basically anywhere we could get our message out. All this laid the foundation for the sales team and the face-to-face call. Potential members knew we were coming, they knew the story, they understood why the finance was needed. The strategy was working.

Tyrone GAA Annual Reports

The summer camps, for example, in the county were not that well attended at the time. There was a county version but some clubs opted for their own as well. After my daughter attended a Samba Soccer School in Omagh, where she got a kit, a bag and a week’s coaching for £80 we thought, why not try that in Tyrone, but cheaper! We pitched the idea to the County Committee and the coaches. We’ll brand and market the camps, arrange kits though O’Neills, ask clubs to buy in and see how it goes. This was before the GAA’s National Summer Camps and the ‘Club Tyrone Summer Camps’ continue to this day as being a great marketing tool, and more importantly, a great outlet for Tyrone kids during the summer months.

In 2002, the year we were knocked out by Sligo in the qualifiers, and with Sam Maguire seemingly destined never to come here, over 4,000 kids in Tyrone attended those summer camps. Proof, if it was needed, that whilst success can help you sell, it’s far from the only factor. A good brand will sell itself.

I didn’t mean to digress into individual campaigns, we are talking about over 20 years here, so we’ll switch back to brand. Tyrone GAA, and Club Tyrone are brands, just like every county and club in the country. People inside and outside Tyrone have a perception about the county, how it conducts its business on and off the field. Perception is all about how you see yourself, how others see you and how you want to be seen. In Tyrone and through Club Tyrone, the ambition was to be seen as best in class in everything we do. And it’s vital to share that at this point, if Tyrone learned that success came from something new, they were willing to share that experience (sorry, for off field experiences only!). Members of the committee, including myself, have traveled to and/or talked with three quarters of the other GAA Counties in Ireland to share the knowledge and the door is always open in Garvaghey. ‘No arm round the homework’ is part of the mantra … part of the Tyrone GAA brand.

Tyrone Fill the Jersey

Being best in class is one thing for a multi million pound business, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that the GAA is an amateur organisation. And with the best will in the world, every club and county deals with this on a daily basis. Committees are rarely handpicked groups of experts, the reality is that no one might want that post and the usual 80/20 rule is applied – 20% of the Committee are doing 80% of the work. To get a model like Club Tyrone to work however you DO need that elite and special group and I doubt in my lifetime I’ll ever come across a group like them again. I said I didn’t want to mention them by name, one I have mentioned already, Mark Conway, and others would include ‘salesman/recruiters supreme’ Patsy Forbes, Hugh McAleer, Jackie Duffy, Patrick Harte and John Mulgrew, RIP.

This committee was never about individuals, it was about a belief and a goal, the work was relentless and maybe that’s a key part of it, you couldn’t bluff. John sadly passed away last year and the priest at the funeral remarked on John’s favourite six words. The first four, ‘leave that with me’ and then two, ‘that’s sorted’.

What John did for Tyrone GAA may not be on a TG4 Laochra Gael, but his contribution will live long in the memory.

Surround yourself with the right people and you can succeed. The people are a key component of any brand. In a GAA setting this is the officers, the committees, the players of all ages and the general membership. All have a role in shaping a Club or County brand. It’s impossible to control everything but we do have a responsibility within our units to tell anyone belonging to our association how to behave. If they wear our colours in any capacity official or not, they are our brand.

In simple terms and from the highest point of a club or county, explain the importance of everyone’s role and the standards that are required and set the example. People are at the core of any brand and in a lot of cases the first point of contact. Everyone in the GAA has a gateman or steward story, some good, some not so good. If you think about them as a key part of your brand would you think about their role a bit more? We probably don’t tell them enough how important they are and we probably don’t tell them what to say or how to behave. We assume they know. They might benefit from a bit of help and a pat on the back as well. We will all engage with thousands of gatemen and stewards during our GAA lives; only a tiny, tiny percentage of us will ever engage with a GAA President. So where really is the brand’s centre of gravity?

Garvaghey - Home of Tyrone GAA

On the subject of the people on the front line, think about the environment. Our club grounds are our home, it’s our place, the hub of any GAA club. So what can we do here from a brand perspective (and something that won’t cost the earth)? Well firstly keep it clean and tidy and put up a welcome sign! You are welcome to St. John’s GAA. How many places do you go to (in everyday life) and the first thing you see is negative? No parking, private land, trespassers prosecuted! Make people feel welcome, show visiting teams where to go, keep the changing rooms clean – all the little things that will last in a visitor’s memory. You might not be so welcoming on the field but how you greeted them when they arrived and the post match hospitality was heartfelt, win or lose.

On communications keep it simple and consistent and in line with GAA guidelines. The GAA have a good resource online:

Tyrone GAA Website

Put the call out, there are people within your club or county who are into this and they need to see it as a fabulous opportunity to help their career. Look at ourselves, I would never have thought that sport would play such a major role in my working life. This all came from volunteering. There are so many good tools out there if you are struggling with the PR workload. It’s not a one person job anymore and the PRO and IT Officer roles are almost intertwined. Within counties there is a need for a full committee to service these roles. Likewise in a club, get the PRO some help if they need it. Hopefully through Club & County we’ll produce some resources to help in that area. And a bit of a plug for Club & County. A GAA template for club and County websites.

To quote, Sean Dunnion the chair of the National I.T. Committee, Club and County is there to “lessen the burden” – a website solution that can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it.

The final point is on our product – we can’t really do a lot in that area but you will have often heard the term, they play a lovely BRAND of football or hurling. It makes you think, whether you believe it or not, people outside your club or county have a perception about you, how you play, how you conduct your affairs, how you communicate, every aspect associated with your club or county.

As I’ve tried to explain, the good news is that you can do something about that perception, that is if you want to? You don’t need to recruit a branding agency, you just need to be aware that everything you do as a club, your committee, your players, your supporters have an impact on the outside world, an impact on potential sponsors, new members, rival clubs. We all got involved in the GAA because it makes us happy; playing, supporting, volunteering. Be positive about what you want to achieve, there is enough negativity in our normal lives.

Club Tyrone is and will always be a good news story. As we talked about it at the beginning, it was pure GAA propaganda – keep telling the positives and slowly but surely it will sink in.

As a club or county, decide how you want to be seen, write it down and build your efforts around achieving it. Sometime around 2010, Peter Canavan, Michael Dempsey (S&C Coach Kilkenny) and myself were invited to give a talk in a certain county about Club Tyrone, strength and conditioning, youth coaching etc. Nearly 300 were at the event, including a good representative of a certain 1996 team. Little did that Millennium Initiative Committee know in 1996 the effect they would have on the future of Tyrone GAA. Things that are worth doing take time, but if you put in the effort they’ll reap rewards in the future.

There’s a popular Chinese proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Written by Niall

Creative Director of LD2 & Founder of Club & County

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