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Despite the outcome, independence vote is good for Scotland's brand

An employee selects a Balvenie single malt Scotch

An employee selects a Balvenie single malt Scotch whisky bottle at a store on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Jan. 30, 2014. Credit: Bloomberg News / Simon Dawson

For months, Scots have debated whether they’ll be better off as citizens of an independent country, which will be decided in a referendum today. Russell Imrie expects the debate itself to pay dividends.

“Scotland is getting huge media attention,” said Imrie, managing director of Queensferry Hotels, which has locations in Edinburgh and Fife. “Once the referendum is over, that attention will die down, but the increased awareness of Scotland hopefully won’t, and that should mean more visitors.”

Whatever the result of today’s too-close-to-call referendum, the debate has shone a spotlight squarely on Scotland’s heaths and highlands, not to mention its high-tech companies. Scots like Imrie, who says he’s voting against independence, are hoping they’ll see adurable boost to tourism, business, and cultural influence.

“The independence referendum provides everyone, from the Scottish government through entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized business, with a unique opportunity,” said Bryan Hook, the managing director of Hookson, a digital branding agency in Edinburgh that has worked with the National Galleries of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh.

The opportunities go far beyond tartan plaids, haggis, and bagpipes, Hook said. For instance, whisky. Scotch exports have climbed to 4.3 billion pounds ($7 billion) from 2.2 billion pounds over the past decade, powered by strong growth in emerging markets such as Mexico, India, and Brazil -- all of which saw increases of more than 10 percent last year.

St. Andrew’s

Scottish education, a domain that Scots have fully overseen since 1998, was rising in prominence even before the referendum. The University of Edinburgh and the University of St. Andrews, both more than 400 years old, are known for cutting-edge scientific research and have growing global appeal. At Edinburgh, undergraduates from outside the European Union have more than doubled since 2009 to about 3,000.

And the historic city of Edinburgh is home to a clutch of successful technology companies such as Wolfson Microelectronics, which supplies components for Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones, and Rockstar North, developer of the “Grand Theft Auto” game series.

For outsiders, “there is the traditional image of heather and hills,” said Richard Simpson, co-owner of Edinburgh branding and design agency Tayburn, whose clients include Diageo Plc and Turkish Airlines. “But we’ve got some really interesting tech businesses, strong financial services. There’s an opportunity for Brand Scotland to capitalize.”

Loch Ness

While worldwide TV images of the stone ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, natural landmarks like Loch Ness, or the greens and fairways at St. Andrews may help bring in tourists, turning that attention into an advantage for business will be more challenging, especially in the event of Yes vote. Large companies including retailer Kingfisher Plc and insurer Standard Life Plc have warned they may cut investment in Scotland in the event of independence, and John Cridland, who leads the Confederation of British Industry lobby group, said it would be a “one-way ticket to uncertainty.”

There’s no guarantee an independent Scotland would continue using the pound, nor that it would be a member of the European Union -- both critical questions for companies considering investment. Leaders of key British trading partners, including the U.S., Australia, and Canada, have warned of the consequences of secession.

Marketing Message

In the case of Yes, companies should tweak their marketing message to emphasize entrepreneurship, new beginnings and new opportunities, said Jim Prior, chief of London branding agency Lambie-Nairn. Campaigns after a No vote should be more about reassurance, continuity and stability, he said.

“The whole debate has been characterized by doubt and uncertainty -- and from a business standpoint that’s bad news,” Prior said.

Independence could open an even greater opportunity to reshape perceptions of Scotland, in spite of the obvious economic risks, said Ross Haddow, managing director of Edinburgh brand consultancy H&A.

A distinctive image for Scotland “is actually an easier proposition to articulate if it’s no longer part of the U.K.,” said Haddow, who said he’s leaning toward voting Yes. “In most contexts, Brand Scotland hasn’t really existed. It’s mostly Brand U.K., and we play a small part in it.”

Scottish nationalists have often said they’d like to emulate the social and economic model of Scandinavia, which has historic ties to Scotland dating back to the Vikings. Scandinavia’s reputation for design, engineering, and quality could also provide a model for an independent Scotland, said Magnus Hultman, who teaches marketing at the University of Leeds Business School.

Adam Smith

“Businesses need to reconsider what is Scotland and how they should position themselves in the mind of customers,” Hultman said. “If Scotland separates, they can focus more on what Scotland is famous for, and what they want to be remembered for.”

In their quest to redefine their image, Scots have a formidable historic legacy to draw upon. Highlights include free-market economist Adam Smith, Alexander Fleming -- who received the Nobel Prize for discovering penicillin -- and James Watt, whose improvements to the steam engine helped launch the Industrial Revolution.

Whatever the referendum’s results, Scotland and its businesses shouldn’t miss the opportunity they’ve been given, said Simon Bolton, head of Brand Union, a branding agency that has worked with the likes of Vodafone Group Plc and Premier League soccer.

“This is really good publicity,” Bolton said. “Whether or not Scotland goes independent, the media attention has been fantastic.”

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