Public Relations

What does Brand Britain stand for?

The British public has voted. The majority want to leave the EU. Whilst the full repercussions of this decision have yet to be determined, one thing at the heart of the matter that could change is the definition of what it means to be British.

‘There’s going to be a lot of soul-searching going on at the moment,’ says Christian Purser, chief executive of Interbrand London. ‘Are we a fiercely independent, spirited island with an international outlook? Or are we a bigger global player? Is part of our identity wrapped up with Europe? Is Britishness defined by the relationship with Europe?’

Kirsten Foster, executive director strategy EMEA at brand consulting firm Landor, agrees that Britain’s relationship with Europe is likely to impact its brand perception across the world, though she is hesitant to estimate exactly how far-reaching it will be.

‘It says I don’t want to be with you anymore. I would be very surprised if it didn’t have a negative impact,’ she says, noting that it is likely to trigger the same reaction as in any breakdown of a relationship or union.

Against this unsettled background, the country still has to be ready for business and to communicate Brand Britain as it renews and revamps trading relationships across the globe. However, the experts warn that Brand Britain should take different forms.

‘If you’re a highly traditional or quirky brand, play up Britishness,’ says Foster. ‘But be careful of what country you talk to. In China, by all means play it up. In the US, they like [Britain] but there’s an issue of friendliness, they find you colder.

‘For somewhere like Australia, if you’re using Brand Britain, you have to be more sensitive. There’s a dark side attached to it.’ Australia, aligned closely with Britain culturally, also tends to know more about Britain’s current affairs, suggests Foster, which makes it a slight exception to the rule that the further away the country, the more clichéd their interpretation of Britain’s brand.

And clichés sadly abound. When Landor asked designers and brand strategists from its 25 offices around the world, in locations as diverse as Bangkok to Singapore and Cincinnati, to provide nine visuals that they believed represented the UK in the run up to the 2012 Olympics, the result was a series of images of red double-decker buses, Polo and chequered Tweed.

But whilst these traditional images still dominate in some parts of the world, alongside the ubiquitous bowler hat, there are also large elements of creativity and innovation attached to Brand Britain.

‘In the 1980s, an element of creativity had been added over time, as well as individuality and inclusiveness,’ says Foster. ‘Not many countries change perceptions, you don’t see that often.’

Indeed, results from the first report into Brand Britain, unearthed by Landor and dating back to 1932, shows that past perceptions are more similar to modern ones than might be expected. It seems 80 years ago, Britain was described then as ‘conventional’, ‘sportsmanlike’ and ‘intelligent’.

‘The world doesn’t pick up on changes so quickly,’ says Foster. ‘Change happens slowly.’

But change is happening. Purser argues that perceptions of Britain are changing as a result of events, Government initiatives and the country’s entrepreneurial spirit.

‘Perception is a sum total of all experiences that people have of a country,’ he explains. ‘Experiences that people have and share drive perception. There is a perception of ingenuity and inventiveness – creativity is too broad.’

He cites landmark moments such as the discovery of DNA and the invention of the World Wide Web, saying that for a small island, Britain punches above its weight in terms of the number of breakthroughs for which it is attributed.

‘Our independent spirit goes with inventiveness and ingenuity,’ adds Purser. ‘We are seen to celebrate people who think differently.’

British brands also shape global perception. Foster references Glastonbury and Jaguar, both classic British brands and both known for being relatively quirky. Branding expert Rita Clifton notes that Burberry too combines the traditional with the forward-thinking.

Burberry is important to Brand Britain, as it ‘combines tradition with digital modernity and style’, she says.

Likewise, the modern Royal Family, headed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, help straddle the gap between conventional and modern. ‘The perception of Britain is communicated as much through its brands as itself,’ says Clifton.

‘Choose how you use it. Burberry is British but it doesn’t have it tattooed all over it. With British Airways, it’s what it does with that name, by having a modern fleet and good service. The financial services industry in Britain is historically quite important for its sense of trustworthiness.’

‘Country brand is no different from other brands,’ says Foster. ‘What you do has to change first before you talk about it.’

‘Brand is a living asset, how you manage it can increase or decrease the value of that asset,’ explains Purser. ‘How do you manage it? It comes from English law, the things that underpin the way that the world is received. You can’t brand the UK as a sunny holiday destination because it’s not credible.’

‘The idea that a country’s brand exists outside of policies, behaviours of the Government and citizens, investment in markets et cetera is a fallacy. It is produced by it. We have some incredible attributes and opportunity to create these perceptions but there is a danger that if we don’t back this up with behaviour it could dilute or weaken the brand. Perception is driven by behaviour not desire.’

‘Strong perception may or may not be what it is,’ says Clifton. ‘Brand China, for example, is lagging well behind what they would like it to be. Made in China is still a sign that something is not to be trusted for safety or quality. All their famous brands like Lenovo don’t wear their nationality on their sleeve because they understand it’s not powerful at the moment because of the quality implication.’

Purser also cites China as a country trying to change its perceptions through behaviour, in its attempts to build its own Silicon Valley, to be seen as a leader in technology and innovation. ‘Reputation has been built on hundreds and hundreds of years,’ adds Purser. ‘Changing human behaviour takes time, it may even be generational. Markets change more quickly.’

Ultimately, like any brand in the world, it has to be managed, regardless of what happens in its politics.

‘If the UK was a company, [the Prime Minister] would be chief executive, the pound would be the share price. [The Prime Minister] has to manage her brand,’ says Purser. ‘What are we doing to demonstrate to the world our behaviours? We have to invest in managing these things for our future. What we do now will reflect what our brand is for the next generation.

‘Organise yourself, do it and deliver it.’

This article first appeared in issue 108