Post-Brexit, the UK must consider how it sells itself to the rest of the world. Which gives rise to the question: is Brand Britain fit for purpose?
Four summers ago, Britain welcomed the world to the London Olympics with a spectacle it called ‘Isles of Wonder’. Some 900 million people turned their gaze to Danny Boyle’s idiosyncratic opening ceremony, which journeyed from the Industrial Revolution to the birth of the web, via Shakespeare and Mr Bean and a soundtrack of Elgar and Dizzee Rascal. The New York Times was enthralled: “Britain presented itself to the world as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.”
Today, ‘whatever that actually is’ has become a question of considerable contention. Far from being secure in its own identity, a fractured nation still trying to comprehend the meaning and consequences of its vote to leave the European Union has been transformed from the isles of wonder into the isles of wondering what’s going on.
As Britain prepares to disentangle itself from the European Union and begin the equally daunting mission of forging new trade agreements outside the sanctuary of Europe’s common market, it must once again confront the challenge of how to sell itself to the world – and this time, it’s not just for show. The question now is whether ‘Brand Britain’ is fit for the task.
“We have to start with asking ‘does Brand Britain matter?’” says Ian Millner, global chief executive of ad agency Iris. “And it does because it creates a lens that people look through when they’re thinking ‘do I want to invest in Britain?’, ‘do I want to buy British brands?’, ‘do I want to move to Britain?’ and so on. These international brands are not made overnight. They’re not destroyed overnight either.”
That said, Millner issues the caveat that the UK’s political establishment needs to move decisively to protect the country’s global reputation or risk watching it wither. “Unless we get hold of Brand Britain and manage it properly, like brands should be managed, it will start to become a problem for British companies, British people and people who might invest in Britain but end up deciding on France or Germany instead because they appear to be more stable. I don’t see anybody doing much about that just now.”
The trouble is that Britain’s politicians have been preoccupied with their own fortunes since that chaotic morning of 24 June, when David Cameron resigned as prime minister after the defeat of his Remain campaign was confirmed. In the weeks that have followed, the country has, quite literally, been putting its house back in order – although not in the way many imagined. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, confounded expectations by appointing Brexit’s chief cheerleader Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. And while he will not have direct responsibility for negotiating the UK’s extrication from the EU, the notoriously undiplomatic former London mayor will be at the forefront of how Britain positions itself to the world thereafter. “It’s a big risk,” according to Millner. “We need him to be extremely effective, and we don’t need any embarrassing gaffes.”
Before even thinking about Europe, the new cabinet has the small matter of discord at home to contend with. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has used the EU referendum result – at odds with the will of voters there – to manoeuvre for a second Scottish independence referendum. “Everybody is trying to create a narrative that serves their own agendas, which isn’t the same thing as ‘let’s build a great Brand Britain’” says Millner. “In some ways the conditions are now very heavily loaded against us getting this right.”
Defining Britain’s identity has never been a straightforward task. This is a nation – lest we forget our stereotypes – that is self-conscious about self-promotion. In 2008, the Labour government of the day struck upon the idea of creating a ‘statement of values’ to represent the country, with lofty ambitions of landing upon a slogan as distinguished as France’s ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’. What it got instead was trademark British ridicule. When the Times challenged its readers to send in their suggestions, one put forward: ‘Dipso, Fatso, Bingo, Asbo, Tesco’. The winning entry was the bon mot: ‘No motto, please, we’re British’.
Rana Brightman, strategy director at branding agency Siegel+Gale, says Britain has long felt uneasy about how to portray itself. “Way before the Olympics, there was the whole rise of ‘chav culture’, ‘binge Britain’, ‘broken Britain’… you can probably recall all those headlines we had such as ‘has multiculturalism failed?’ We were a nation that was really struggling to know what its identity was.”
London 2012, with its irreverent opening ceremony and disarming army of volunteers demonstrating a sense of warmth at odds with the cliché of Brits’ supposed ‘stiff upper lip’, helped instil self-belief, according to Brightman. “I think everyone who was British felt incredibly proud; the brand did a really good job. However, in the last two months it has been massively affected. All that equity we built to show we’re creative and welcoming and warm and we’ve got our shit together… actually you could argue the ‘shit together’ bit has been an absolute disaster.”
While previous attempts to characterise Britain may have ended in derision, a more coherent campaign to encourage visitors, students and investors to the country – called GREAT Britain, no less – has endured since its launch by the coalition government of 2012. “The ‘Great’ stuff, I think, did a really good job,” says Brightman. “The question is, does it do that great a job now?”
Brightman thinks the campaign can continue, but she would like to see it represent a broader sense of British culture. “There is an opportunity to evolve it. ‘Great’ is still good, ‘Great’ is still valid, but it’s about then demonstrating how we’re still ‘Great’. That was quite a monolithic brand. I wonder whether there is an opportunity to still have that level of prestige that that campaign had, but to share more of the UK’s voices.”
But after the turmoil of the last two months, does Britain still look that great to those overseas? Brit Toby Southgate, who is now plying his trade in New York as worldwide chief executive of the Brand Union, suggests the shockwaves of Brexit have not been as seismic as we might care to imagine. “The US has its own political preoccupations at the moment, and while there was definitely a moment of shock and disbelief at the referendum result – ‘why would anyone want to do that?’ – it was short-lived. The chance of ’The Donald’ becoming president is more of a preoccupation, for now at least. Whether it lasts depends on how the exit itself is managed, and, dare I say it, whether or not it actually happens.”
In Europe, however, there is a growing sense that other nations can capitalise on the UK’s malaise. One month after the referendum result, Berlin senator Cornelia Yzer claimed more than 100 startup businesses in London were looking to relocate to the German capital. Germany’s Free Democratic Party attempted to fan the flames further by running a guerrilla marketing campaign in London, driving around a wagon bearing the message: “Dear startups, keep calm and move to Berlin.”
Early signs of dementia
One other city that stands to gain may be Amsterdam, where the communications agency KesselsKramer is based. But there, it’s fair to say, there isn’t that much concern about the UK. “Britain appears to overestimate the amount of fucks the rest of the world gives about it,” says the agency’s strategic planner Camiel Bulder.
“What’s this obsession with the blue passport, for example? It sounds as if people expect it to open doors and business class lounges that remain closed for red ones.”
Bulder’s message to the UK is to figure out its own problems before worrying about other parts of the world. “Britain used to be represented by the image of a rather cocky but classy English gentleman who dresses after the Duke of Windsor. To great embarrassment of his Scottish, Welsh and London family members, he has started to show early signs of dementia – to the extent that he is now blurting out xenophobic nonsense and is packing his suitcase to leave immediately. But to where, exactly, nobody knows.”
This article was first published in the 17 August issue of The Drum