Brand Strategy Fast-Growth Brands UK

Unpicking the idiosyncrasies of brand building in the UK

By Jon Shaw

Porter Novelli


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February 18, 2022 | 5 min read

It’s not just Brexit: marketers have long known that the UK sticks out from the rest of Europe, with products and strategies that work in one failing in the other. Jon Shaw, Porter Novelli’s director of brand growth, looks into why.

Porter Novelli on why British brands need to work harder than before Brexit.

Porter Novelli on why British brands need to work harder than before Brexit.

We’re a funny old bunch in the UK. Brexit and our somewhat controversial government aside, when it comes to brand building, the approach taken here tends to be drastically different from the rest of Europe. Working with clients on EMEA campaigns, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard ‘well this is how we did it in Spain, why can’t we use the same model in the UK?’. The reason is simple – it doesn’t work.

This is particularly pronounced with consumer tech, and none more so than the smartphone sector. Having been lucky enough to work with some of the world’s biggest smartphone brands, such as Samsung and Huawei, the rise of multiple Chinese manufacturers across Europe in recent years shows how the UK strategy can work well or fail badly. The warehouses of many UK network operators are littered with the ghosts of those brands who’ve tried to get a foothold in the UK but fallen a long way short. Remember HTC anyone? TCL? Even Nokia?

So, what makes the UK different? There are many reasons, and we can’t overlook the need for constant innovation, with several brands getting left behind. But three key factors stand out in making the UK a very different beast.

1. An aspirational market

The UK is both premium and aspirational as a market; the world’s third-biggest spenders per capita on tech products. So, whether consumers can afford to purchase a brand or not, the desire to do so at the premium end is strong.

Entering the UK with a low or mid-tier product to try and get a market foothold seldom ends well. Conversely, this approach works very well in mainland Europe and has been the source of success for the likes of Xiaomi, with 2020 shipments increasing 17% globally. Xiaomi have followed the Chinese manufacturer model of entering Europe in smaller, less premium countries to grow market share and use this as a springboard to attack the UK.

2. The emotional British and the say-do gap

In the UK, we’re an emotional bunch. We like to be wooed by a brand with slick and savvy campaigns that tap into the cultural conversation and our lifestyles. We want to see brands closing their say-do gap and acting with purpose.

Conversely, many countries in Europe tend to find more success by leading with the rational first – highlighting features, benefits and price. This is compounded by the fact that we buy our smartphones in a unique way compared with most European markets. The bundled sim and device on a monthly subscription model is much rarer outside the UK, so consumers are less likely to factor in the headline cost of the device. UK consumers instead wrestle with the decision of whether to spend three or four pounds more per month to get that shiny new model they really want.

Germany, for example, is the polar opposite. Smartphones are bought outright, and largely based on what has the best spec, for the best price – a huge factor as to why Apple have always struggled to reach the number one spot for market share there.

3. An expensive place for brand building

It costs more to build a brand in the UK. Often, clients are apprehensive about the level of investment required to get cut through in the UK compared to spending levels in other markets. Ad space is often more expensive, and competition for inventory is fierce.

Agencies tend to have higher rates in the UK, across the marketing disciplines, which can be difficult for clients to accept, especially those international clients driven by a standardized procurement model. What we see all too often as a result is watered-down campaigns and budgets that fail to cut through the noise, ultimately not delivering for either the brand or the agency teams working hard to turn water into wine.

That’s not to say great campaigns can’t be delivered on a shoestring – far from it. Some of the most rewarding campaigns I’ve had the pleasure to work on were creative ideas with minimal execution costs. This is especially true of PR, social and digital campaigns. But when it comes to that tipping point of mass awareness and increased ad spend, to building a brand with a lasting relationship with UK consumers, the message to brands entering the UK market following success elsewhere really must be: go big or go home.

Brand Strategy Fast-Growth Brands UK

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Porter Novelli

Porter Novelli is the strategic communications company built on purpose to do business better. The way we bring this to life in EMEA is by closing the say-do gap...

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