Business: British brand DNA
These complex concepts must be defined when it comes to establishing the ‘B’ for “business” in my 3B branding framework, whether for a company or a nation. William Hesketh Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, defined the purpose for Sunlight Soap in Victorian England in the 1890s: “to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products”. These ideas still guide Unilever’s business, brands and behaviours today.
But what is the identity-defining purpose of a nation? A nation is a body of people of a particular territory, united by common heritage, history, culture, or language. And to (re)define the British brand, one must deep dive into its DNA, values, culture, key moments in history and the iconic people that continued to shape it.
The British national identity finds its roots at least as far back as Magna Carta in1215, still an important symbol of liberty today. Britishness has political and moral foundations, such as tolerance, meritocracy and freedom of expression. It is an identity formally established with creation of the unified Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, when England and Scotland agreed “a hostile merger”. What was the purpose of this union? What led to its expansion to include Wales and Ireland later on? Or the demerger of the Republic of Ireland in 1922?
Purpose and identity are closely linked, and the notion of Britishness was strengthened during the Napoleonic wars, when it was one defined primarily by virtue of not being French or Catholic. A more pragmatic purpose was the growth and wealth creation of the British Empire, one that cemented the union. Money is also part of the Brexit equation, but the Remainers missed a vital ingredient by ignoring the role that identity played during the vote. And the government is in danger of playing a short game by focusing on the uncertain economics of Brexit without understanding the vital long-term implications of a strong British identity. The Brexiteers certainly knew how to play up historic identity battles with the Continent and the otherness of immigrants to fuel patriotism. Identity is a powerful card being played around the world, and the UK government ignore it at their own peril – not just with respect to the UK’s role in the world, but the union itself.
To redefine Brand Britain, it is worth looking at what accompanied the Empire’s planting of the Union Jack across the globe: tea, tubs, sanitation, obscure sports and churches, as well as a love-hate relationship to Britishness. In making its mark in the world, the UK has needed a range of soft skills: persuasiveness, diplomacy, creativity, ingenuity. These are skills that Brexit Britain should consider rediscovering and using to their maximum potential.
Mass immigration to the UK from the Commonwealth after the British Nationality Act 1948, and from all over the world since, has created an eclectic and vibrant expression and experience of cultural life exemplified in London. More than 250 languages are spoken in the capital, which has the largest non-white population of any European city. The UK’s membership in the European Economic Community in 1973 and European Union since 1993 has left indelible traces of Europeanness on the British identity.
Akin to how corporate brand identities are established, it’s instructive to look at who the British celebrate as the best examples of themselves. In November 2002, a BBC poll of more than a million people identified their greatest Britons of all time. Winston Churchill topped the chart, with engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in second place and Princess Diana in third. The list included artists, writers, royalty, scientists, explorers, military giants and, of course, a Beatle.
As the list illustrates, Britain has long been a hotbed of innovation, with major contributions to global culture, literature and the arts. Brits contributed to world-changing inventions in global communications (electronic telegraph, telephone, worldwide web), the media (photography, television), industry (cement, stainless steel, spinning frame, steam engine, electric motor), and even the humble toothbrush. Its education system at all levels is envied and has been copied around the world. One should also explore what people think when they see a product is “Made in Britain” and how perceptions differ from the same product labelled as “Made in Germany” or as “Made in China”.
But a brand is not simply a laundry list of all possible ingredients that make up its DNA. As the British film producer and director Alfred Hitchcock has observed: “If you confuse the audience, they cannot emote.” And, in the end, this is an emotional and not just intellectual exercise. The genes of the DNA ingredients need to be boiled down and fit together as a coherent whole.
Brand: who is it for?
But to create a compelling brand, the DNA is not enough. One has to consider the voice of the target audiences, whose attitudes and behaviours the brand should ultimately affect. It is an exercise at small scale with the Red Arrows as part of our MBA programme’s London Business Experience immersion. The Red Arrows know who they are, but in order to be a force for stimulating UK economic growth – their new remit of their air shows when travelling the world – they need to understand the goals of their different audience members, and then marry these insights up with what their DNA has to offer. To do so, you have to look for a universal insight that unites, rather than differentiates these audiences. Unilever has many audiences ranging from their own employees to regulators, communities, investors, customers and consumers. But they all can relate to their corporate purpose.
The second ‘B’ for brand therefore marries the DNA with target stakeholder insights: from businesses, immigrants, tourists, students, governments, not to mention its own citizens. For whom, in the long-term, should the brand be crafted? What are their goals? In what ways can Britain and Britishness authentically relate to these? While the brand message can be articulated in different ways to different stakeholders, the brand idea must have a consistent and coherent voice. External stakeholders too have different goals: Brexit affects them in different ways. The remaining 27 EU members will certainly feel different about Brexit than non-EU countries, who see new opportunities in a more independent UK.
Starting internally may well be the way to go: finding common ground for a nation divided. London stands apart from most of England, and Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. It is therefore important to not get seduced by the notion of trying to forge a new Britishness around the identity of the Brexiteers. Exit polls and regional voting patterns suggest that they were, on average, older and less educated than the Remainers. Also, as the polling organisation YouGov showed, the brands preferred by voters differed substantially, even when correcting for demographic factors. Those who voted to leave were most loyal to traditional and warm brands like HP Sauce, Sky News, PG Tips and Richmond Sausages; whereas those voting Remain favoured more progressive and innovative brands like the BBC, Spotify, Virgin Trains and Twitter. This is no value judgement but a call to look at what unites rather than what divides them.