Rebranding the Irish Agri-Food Industry; a conversation with Tírlan CEO Jim Bergin

After announcing in August that Glanbia co-op would be rebranding as “Tírlan”, Michael Bergin sat down with Tírlan CEO Jim Bergin to discuss why.

On the 31st of August last, it was announced that Glanbia co-op, following the acquisition of Glanbia PLC’s stake in the Irish dairy and grain business, would be renamed Tírlan, in an effort to distinguish the co-op from the PLC. The new name was unveiled via a webinar, hosted in the co-op’s collaboration centre at Abbey Quarter in Kilkenny, with Irish rugby international Tadhg Furlong acting as a brand ambassador. 

The word “Tírlan” itself is a combination of two older Irish words, “Tír” and “Lán”, meaning “country” and “full” respectively, thus giving the new name the intended meaning “Land of abundance”.

Sitting down with Tírlan CEO Jim Bergin, I had the opportunity to ask questions of the decision to rebrand Glanbia co-op, the challenges facing the business as it adjusts to its new identity, and what the change means for the long-term aspirations of the co-op.

To begin with, I questioned Bergin as to why the decision to rebrand had been taken, when a distinction between Glanbia PLC and the co-op had not been apparent before.

“On the 17th of December 2021”, he begins, “the shareholders of the co-op voted to acquire 40% of the joint venture between the co-op and the PLC, which was previously known as Glanbia Ireland”. He continues “By doing so the organisations are now two completely separate trading entities.” Referring back to a previous agreement, which had guaranteed Glanbia PLC ownership of that name, he concludes that “as two separate entities, the co-op had to develop a new corporate identity, and launch that in the way that we have now.”

As with any major rebranding of a well-known business, challenges exist. The loss of brand association, unfamiliarity for customers, and the loss of any emotive links to the business’ old identity, can prove difficult to adjust to. However, these challenges do not seem to daunt the company’s CEO.

“To be honest, we see it more as an opportunity than as a challenge”, he tells me. “The Glanbia brand is internationally known and respected, and so with any brand you have an emotional attachment, and you have trust.” Referencing the many farmers and factory workers that Tírlan employs, he adds that “In many ways, the name of the organisation that you work for defines you”, noting that “There is an emotional attachment which has to be managed and recognised”. While identifying that there is a need for people to grieve the loss of a familiar presence in their communities, he is also steadfast that there is a need “to embrace our new name as Tírlan, and to look towards the future.”

“as two separate entities, the co-op had to develop a new corporate identity, and launch that in the way that we have now.”

Glanbia enjoys an enormous amount of brand proliferation in rural communities, with the word “Glanbia” in many cases being used to refer to the local creamery or retail outlet. Tackling this local aspect will be a gradual process. However, Tírlan is also an international business, with GAIN feeds and Millac among the many brands in the co-op’s portfolio. Annually, the co-op handles over 270,000 tonnes of grain, and exports to over 80 countries. As such, how the change will be perceived abroad will be of equal significance.

“Internationally, the message will be that we have the same people, same products, same performance, same ethos, same psychology, same culture, but we have a different name. We explain what Tírlan stands for, and the historic roots going back over 100 years, but at the same time we are a modern co-op, establishing the co-op of the future.”

He goes further, saying that it is important for people “to get used to the name, to be able to pronounce it, and to understand that there is a huge history here, and that we are an organisation that they can trust, and continue to do business with.”

The agricultural industry in Ireland is often unfairly attacked when environmental targets are not met, nonetheless, one of the major challenges that the agri-food industry will face in the coming years is adhering to the climate goals of successive governments, and working to promote and develop sustainable agriculture in line with these aims. 

“To be honest, we see it more as an opportunity than as a challenge”

At Tírlan’s launch event in Kilkenny, it was observed that the new name, and in particular its connotations of a “land of abundance”, was a subtle reaffirmation of the co-op’s commitment to agricultural sustainability in the long run. The co-op has set out a roadmap with ambitions to reach net zero emissions by 2050, including a plan to cut emissions by 30% by 2030. How then, will the name change signify this increased focus on renewability and sustainability?

“Firstly, we have taken some time to do this” muses Bergin, “we engaged an international organisation called Siegel and Gale, and they challenged us to look into the soul of the organisation, what is it that we stand for, what is it that we do, and what is it that we are proud of, and hence the name Tírlan.”

He continues, “The two words that we have chosen, they refer to the Earth. It recognises the unique relationship that Irish farmers have with their land and with the Earth.” In addition to this, the new logo for the company, based on an old Ogham design, is intended to mean “clay” or “soil”.

“The name is giving us the opportunity to redefine our relationship with the Earth and with the planet, and also with our farms. What underpins that is the recognition that we are very very good in Ireland at working with nature, and so working in harmony with nature, and in balance with nature, will enable us to be some of the best in the world at [redefining that relationship].”

The agri-food industry is a particularly exciting sector for graduates to get involved in, and so the question was asked about how this rebranding will signal new opportunities for recent graduates of UCD. The question was unexpectedly prescient.

“The two words that we have chosen; they refer to the Earth. It recognises the unique relationship that Irish farmers have with their land and with the Earth.”

“I’ve just come from meeting our graduates, the fourteen members of our graduate programme for 2022,” he relays, “and what I said to them first of all is that they are joining a community of 2,300 people, and these are people that they will want to work with, and are proud to call their colleagues.” 

Continuing, he explains the co-op’s community-based ethic, and how this can appeal to graduates. “We spend 1.6 billion every year on milk and grain, in order to pay our 6,000 family farms. The economic multiplier in the rural economy is 2.06, so for every euro we spend in local communities, it doubles the economic activity in those areas. Our footprint for milk and grain alone generates 3.2 billion euros every year, in the rural economy of Ireland.”

He concludes “for any purposeful student or graduate, who wants to join an organisation that has a real impact on the community and society, we believe that Tírlan is a great place to be.”

Much was made online when the name was revealed, with no small part of the attention focusing on the fact that while incorporating two Irish words, the name itself does not make grammatical sense, and removes a fada from the word “Lán”. This had previously been the case with Glanbia, which combines the Irish words “Glan” and “Bia”, with an intended meaning of “clean food”, though making no sense from an Irish grammatical standpoint.

Speaking on this issue, Bergin is open to hearing the views of Gaeilgeoirí. “First of all we respect all views, people are entitled to their opinion on this issue” he begins, acknowledging that the word “Lán” has a fada, and that it was removed for the rebranding.

“What we’re doing is we’re developing a brand for an international community. We export to people in 80 countries, and we need people in these countries to be able to pronounce the name, and to be able to say it.”

The example is then given of France, and various other European countries, in which corporate names are amended from what would be grammatically correct in order to make them more palatable to international audiences.

Bergin also clarified that “when we were looking at the word itself, we found that the word looks better with a logo, the ogham symbol, and a simple font.” He finishes by saying that “it is a brand, and we’re not claiming to be an Irish term.”

In conclusion, the rebranding of this key player in the Irish agricultural industry is an enormous step in the development of rural Ireland. Through conversation with Bergin, it becomes starkly apparent that words and symbols have deeper meanings, particularly when applied to an organisation that is so deeply entrenched in the fabric of rural Irish life. As the decade progresses, the industry will face enormous challenges to comply with Ireland’s environmental ambitions, and these will not be easily overcome. However, progress is built on words and ideas, and by rebranding as Tírlan, the co-op has shown a willingness to confront the future.