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How do you solve a problem like... navigating around national identities?

Can marketers manoeuvre around national identity in their comms?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, we ask how marketers can navigate and engage with patriotic feeling in their comms.

A recent Budweiser campaign honoring Labor Day in the US took a patriotic angle to celebrating that holiday and the labor movement it marks. Nothing out of the ordinary for the King of Beers, which is a mainstay of big patriotic moments in the US such as the Super Bowl. Wrapping a brand in the flag is hardly limited to American commerce either – British brands from Tango to Churchill have both nodded at national identity, whether it’s through a bombastic ad featuring hovering Harrier jets (’Come on, France!’) or simply naming oneself after the country’s favorite prime minister.

But not every brand has such leeway. And a patriotic tie-in can go wildly wrong if it’s seen as nationalistic or parochial. So for agencies advising clients, or creative directors and copywriters deciding whether or not to invoke national or regional identities, how far should you go? How do you know where the line is?

How do you solve a problem like... navigating around national identities?

Jessica Wardle, managing partner, M&C Saatchi

National identity can be a friend or foe. At its simplest, it is a shortcut to provenance, allowing brands to harness recognized traits and embrace positive equity. Scotch whisky. German engineering. But changing geo-political forces can leave you exposed.

Riskier still is seeking to define intangible character or values. This can lead to lowest-common-denominator stereotypes that alienate audiences in modern, diverse societies – successfully avoided by HSBC with its ‘We are not an island’ campaign. Authorship and tone can also help. Nuanced humor or the voice of an impartial outsider can be more effective ways to leverage national identity.

Ed Brooke, exeutive partner, Leith

You probably shouldn’t attempt to solve the problem (unless it feels natural and effortless for you to do so) when your brand, organization or cause is closely aligned to your national identity. And we gravitate toward those who do this in an understated way, and are generally alienated by those who overcook it.

Or it feels totally inappropriate – there’s some harmless fun to be had where you end up appropriating another national identity you’ve really no right to.

But never the middle ground; the half-hearted, the half-arsed. This is where you will get flamed.

Stu Watson, founding partner, Nomad

Country identity is built on hundreds of years of memory structures wrapped up neatly into a simple yet powerful flag. The US, more than ever, stands for the American Dream to so many people across the globe. As an agency, we encourage our US clients to ‘bottle America’ and ship it across the world. We all want a piece of it. Americana, larger than life, excitement. Boom. When invoking national identities, encourage brands to have a clear understanding of who they are, their best qualities and how to tell their story. If not, it’s just fluff, noise and waffle.

Helen Firth, executive strategy director, Landor & Fitch

Patriotism or nationalism? It depends on the mood of the times. Brands looking to express a sense of national identity will do well to read the cultural room.

Budweiser’s recent Labor Day promotion steers clear of ‘capital P’ patriotism by casting the spotlight on to the contributions and hard graft of individuals during the pandemic. That’s certainly less bombastic than its 2016 effort, with labels that read simply ‘America.’ The recommendation for brands is twofold: avoid divisive missteps by having your finger on the pulse of what’s relevant in culture right now, and stay true to your brand – if playing the patriotic card doesn’t fit the brand, don’t do it.

Chaaya Mistry, senior diversity strategist, Rapp UK

Let’s wake up to the fact that sentiments around patriotism are changing. No longer are people – especially younger generations – willing to uphold archaic beliefs and values that thrive off of social injustices in the name of their country.

And isn’t that what true patriotism should be about? Calling your country out on its shortcomings and encouraging it to live up to more purposeful and inclusive ideals that benefit the many? For brands, it’s about using their position and power to create meaningful change that brings those ideals to life – to be a part of the solution, rather than perpetuating the problems.

James Lees, head of strategy, Matter of Form

Budweiser’s mantra of ‘Blood, Sweat and Beers’ aligns with traditional American values – the idea that hard work leads to the reward of ‘the American Dream.’ Budweiser has worked hard to cultivate this link in its (patriotic) home market for decades. But for brands today thinking about creating an association with a national/regional identity, you’ve got to consider what specific qualities you hope to gain through an overt or subtle association. The link also needs to be genuine and something you can commit to building long term. But, most importantly, you’ve got to consider your target audience’s relationship with the region/nation.

In the UK, our sense of national pride is pretty bloody complicated these days. So, before slapping a flag on stuff, you’ve gotta ask: are we jumping on a landmine here?

Kev Chesters, strategy partner, Harbour Collective

The key to celebrating your national identity without going too far is to understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. The patriot understands that it is possible to love one’s country without feeling it necessary to denigrate someone else’s. What I learned from leading the strategy on British Airways was to take what is inspirational and laudable about the country, and leave behind the more bombastic tubthumping bits that can lead you into aggressive posturing. Be proud without being arrogant. Celebrate in a way that involves or invites everyone to be part of it.

Opinions bubbling out of your gullet like an erupting volcano? Got thoughts that simply have to be shared? Email to join next week’s debate.

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