Designing Britishness – why brands must move away from visual cliches to capture real British identity

Few issues are currently more contentious or heavily debated than the discussion around what it means to be ‘British’. The changing face of our nation’s culture has made us rethink a more modern and inclusive representation of Britain that not only reflects the diversity of our society, but also captures the personality and collective mindset of a nation that has always been loved for its unique brand of humour, eccentricity and ‘get on with it’ type stoicism.

Fewer nations have also been parodied as much as Britain. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Whether plummy Englishness or Dick Van Dyke-style mockney Cockney, the quirks and charms of every aspect of our culture has been imitated and exported to distant territories with a huge affection for all things British – from monarchy to motors; fashion to fry-ups.

No more is this truer than in British design. Being ‘Made in Britain’ is practically akin to a seal of quality, authenticity and craftsmanship. The ever-rising prominence of the Made In Britain movement is testimony of this trend; it’s a backlash against the mass produced – a unique ecosystem for nurturing homegrown talent. When this ethic is combined with the elusive, complex and seductive spirit of ‘Britishness’, brands may wield a newfound appeal that makes them beguiling, loved and highly exportable.

As the Brexit referendum reaches a feverish crescendo, we remain ever aware of our value as a nation with burgeoning creative talent that may continue to flourish and contribute internationally, no matter what the outcome might be on 23 June.

But while British design continues to remain indisputably desirable to international consumers, it is clear that there is a huge and worrying disconnect between the theory of ‘British design’ and ‘designing Britishness’. The two must certainly not be confused as the same thing. Too often, brands that are endeavouring to leverage their British provenance to win consumers’ hearts never move beyond the usual visual cliches of Union flags or jowly Bulldogs to capture the zeitgeist of modern British culture. How did we get to this point where designing Britishness has become so limited in scope and creativity? It’s not the British way!

Just as British people are reevaluating what it means to be British, brands and designers should consider a new approach that transcends the hackneyed visual systems typically used on products derided as ‘tourist tat’ and harnesses the real essence of Britishness that has made our country’s unique culture an international attraction. Our cultural evolution and creative output over the past decade (and more) have created new contemporary icons and behaviours that we should be recognised for too.

Some British brands are leading the way here by expressing the British attitude and not just using visual icons – capturing eccentricity and elegance, irreverence and inventiveness, heritage and humour – in a way that nods to, if not pokes fun at, the clichés that have long defined our national character.

Hendrick's Gin, Fortnum & Mason and Tyrrell’s snacks use a visual and verbal brand narrative that takes traditional English ‘sensibilities’ and makes them almost insensible (though in the best possible way) – fun, saucy, subversive, witty. From sight alone, you can discern the very Britishness of these brands. The illustrious Victorian style drawings; embellished, antiquated ‘olde’ English labels; splendid black and white pictures of yesteryear glamour, fun days out and frolicking – all executed with a whimsical spirit that is, at once, tongue in cheek yet a heartfelt homage to our nation’s heritage.

Stereotypes dictate that the British are reserved, polite and very by the book, yet the emergence of punk indicated a huge generational yearn for freedom of self-expression without reprisal. Three decades on, that very spirit of irreverence still prevails. Subversive and divisive ice cream brand The Icecreamists captures this sentiment in both its products and its branding. Its logo balances decadence and danger in the same way that its provocative ice creams once did. A crowned skull forms the centrepiece of a regal crest resplendent in ornate swirls and the crossing of two sword-like spoons. It echoes the prestige and heritage that comes with a royal crest that is given only to the most trusted of suppliers, but at the same time defiles it. It is an artistically flagrant ‘up-yours’ to the conservative and pompous representation of excellence the royal crest has come to represent, and while it raises an eyebrow, it elicits a smile.

Our nation’s reputation for eccentricity precedes itself. Actor Helena Bonham-Carter, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, bumbling blond bombshell Boris Johnson all exemplify the British propensity for being bonkers. It’s as if this benign form of madness is a precursor to success. Creativity, inventiveness and experimentation are all essential ingredients for this special brand of ‘British bonkers’.

Gourmet popcorn brand Joe & Sephs, harbingers of the Gin & Tonic popcorn and the caramel, pepper and chilli combination, is a case in point. It has taken a common snack and used it as a base for Willy Wonka style flavour innovation. The brand identity, marked by a chef’s hat and top hat, signifies the culinary thought that has been poured into its inventions, nodding at the same time to the privileges of fine dining once exclusively enjoyed by the ruling elite. The brand has subverted the concept into ‘accessible posh’ – here we have a cinema snack staple that has become both refined and fun, perfectly encompassing gentility and eccentricity with a signature British madness.

It’s clear that British brands intentionally leveraging their provenance to engage with consumers globally, must adopt a new design language that not only reflects their unique brand personality, but also captures the spirit and character of Britishness. Visual cliches may still have a part to play here, but the secret to success is to ensure designers put a witty, personality-loaded spin on the mechanic in order to make it relevant and appealing to the contemporary consumer. Those British brands that follow this formula will ultimately be the winners, driving sustainable growth both at home and internationally for many years to come.

Ed Silk is strategy director at brand and packaging design agency Bulletproof

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