A slick, viral video showing smiling people in celebratory mood at the launch of a brand new product in Belfast appeared on social media in February this year.
But the launch was different from many launches seen until now. Different because it used the rapidly-rising popularity, even the heart and soul, of Belfast as a central marketing hook.
Held among the rich sights and smells of the Linen Hall Library, the event was held to welcome a new brand of locally-made Belfast gin to be sold by independent outlets in the city and beyond.
Even the name Jawbox Gin, stamped onto the side of stoneware mugs at the launch beneath posters with the slogan “True Character”, links a tactile sense of timeless Belfast to the historic setting.
And the urbane, folksy tone of the video also hints at something very new: a sense of modern, outgoing Belfast pride creating demand for products celebrating everything the city has become in the present day and remembering the best of Belfast’s past.
The drink is joined on the shelves by other products including the Ashton Watch Company’s new Belfast-branded goods, by the relaunched Dunville’s Belfast whiskey, by RubyBlue vodka and by the likes of the Ardour gym wear company’s ‘BLFST’ range. Meanwhile, artists like Deborah Toner have filled the award-winning St George’s Market with pieces proudly celebrating our city.
The arrival of the Belfast-branded products has come about through the growing confidence of those who live and work in the modern capital, in turn encouraged by the city hosting successful international events and enjoying praise from guidebooks and travel writers in recent years for its lively, welcoming nightlife.
Gerry White, creator of Jawbox Gin, explained: “There’s a vibrancy about Belfast today and that’s why we have more investment in places like great restaurants. It has meant a change for people here in how they think about Belfast: there’s more enthusiasm, helped by Belfast pulling off impressive events better than many larger cities could have managed.”
Belfast writer Alan Meban was asked if he has seen our shop-shelves begin to change. He recalled how moves by Belfast City Council almost ten years ago could well have sparked a drive to turn Belfast pride into local products: “In the summer of 2008, Belfast City Council re-branded the city with a stylised heart-shaped B. It kick-started a movement to make the city most associated with conflict into a softer, fluffier, feel-good place. Today, the name Belfast is at the heart of the designs of merchandise from independent creatives.
“We certainly export this new Belfast to visitors and tourists: it’s the image we want to project. The centenary of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic was an opportunity to celebrate ship-building and tall ships, cycling races and continental markets have all brought people together”.
Alan warned, though, that an ongoing struggle with the more visceral symbols of identity – “flags, bonfires, parading, murals and housing” – can still threaten our own, united sense of a new Belfast.
That sense of common self-regard, he argues, is key to turning Belfast pride into Belfast pounds.
We can all drink to that.
* Dedicated to my beloved Elle who helped me see Belfast through new eyes – and also loves to help explore our city and its changes for these blog posts.