Maybe the Brexiteers didn’t expect to win the referendum in June 2016. To quote from the confusingly-titled iconic Brit film, The Italian Job, maybe they “only meant to blow the bloody doors off”. Possibly they didn’t intend to shatter the whole edifice: they fled the scene so fast it’s hard to know. No matter. In uncertainty, as everybody knows, there is opportunity. And for Brand Britain to grasp this opportunity, it cannot afford the British habits of self-deprecation and ambivalence. Brands need to know what they’re about. And behave accordingly.
I don’t know how Britain will emerge from Brexit – who does – but I do know that it could help to look at it from a brand-building perspective. I have a 3Bs framework for this: aligning business, brand and behaviour. Maybe if Britain learns from corporate experience, it can avoid becoming a nation of Bregretters.
With the world watching, attempts to shape Britain’s brand will have a disproportionate impact, amplified internationally by the press and social media. That opportunity won’t last for ever. The British government can help people reconnect with their identity, reframe the values that define the culture, and position Britain's role in Europe and the wider world for a new era. Political leaders should not get caught up in short-term posturing on the terms of Brexit – or its £60 billion price tag. This behaviour will reflect on Brand Britain. Rather than think of it as a cost, it should be seen as an investment. The European Union (EU) is not the only one listening and Brand Britain is a far greater prize at stake. Ultimately, brands are about identity and emotions. And, without empathy, Brexit may well have the same chilling effect of the separation of the British Isles from continental Europe following the last glacial period.
So let’s look at corporate brands for inspiration on how it could and should be done.
What is the national brand in question anyway? Brexit is an abbreviation for “British exit” where “British” refers to the people of the United Kingdom, which includes Great Britain – comprising England, Scotland and Wales – and Northern Ireland. As such, the UK is not a branded house like London Business School (LBS). Rather, it is a house of brands such as Unilever that owns power brands such as Dove, Axe (or Lynx), Lipton and Knorr, to name just a few. Unilever is also the world’s leading ice-cream maker, with brands such as Magnum, Carte D’Or, and Solero that are part of the Heartbrand, and Ben & Jerry’s that is not. Unilever’s Global Chief Marketing Officer, Keith Weed’s views on the repositioning of their brand can be usefully applied and can be heard in an interview I carried out with him here.
The brand architecture is complex, but purposeful. Brands such as Carte D’Or and Solero have a different functional positioning – sharing and refreshment, respectively – but are united under the Heartbrand’s umbrella positioning of “euphoric fun”. This aims to turn Carte D’Or’s sharing into a much more active “bonding” and Solero’s refreshment into an emotional “uplift”. Furthermore, Unilever’s corporate brand has the purpose of “adding vitality to life”, which for example, drives product development into lower-sugar ice creams.
Britishness too is a layered identity. Think of the UK as Unilever, Great Britain as the Heartbrand – with England as Magnum, Scotland as Carte D’Or, and Wales as Solero – and Northern Ireland as Ben & Jerry’s. And, of course, each comes in different flavours, just like London, the Lake District and Cumbria are all English yet different. Britishness is layered on much older identities of being English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, which continue to resist a homogenised British identity. People differ in the degree to which they consider themselves as English versus British, for example, with some rejecting either aspect entirely. And it gets even more complicated when considering the EU: Remainers might add a dollop of Europeanness to their identity, which surely is a concept entirely foreign to the identity of most Brexiteers.
In making its mark in the world, the UK has needed a range of soft skills: persuasiveness, diplomacy, creativity, ingenuity.
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.
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.
Think of all the touchpoints that a migrant, foreign student, tourist or business traveller has. From acquiring a visa (something millions more will likely have to do post-Brexit) to arriving at an airport such as Heathrow, there are thousands of experiences that will shape people’s perceptions of this nation.
Whatever brand idea is created at the overlap of the DNA and audience insight, this is only the design of the brand strategy – one that needs a plan to be successfully executed. This is where the third ‘B’ for behaviour comes in, and it presents probably the biggest challenge – for business or nation alike. This is not about the big campaign. This is about the thousands of behaviours that add up. Take Southwest airlines. They are not just cheap, but their brand promise to weary travellers is that it will be a cheerful experience. And their people exhibit true missionary zeal, with constant smiles and creative in-flight announcements. This is not the 4 Ps of marketing – product, price, place and promotion – but the Southwest’s 3 Ps of “people, personal and personalities” that are at the heart of its branding efforts. All of its people processes are dedicated to attracting, selecting, developing and rewarding the hardworking "Fun-LUVing Attitude" that is one of its core values. All this so that its people can deliver fun moments-that-matter.
And Southwest is an example not too far-fetched for Brand Britain to learn from. Think of all the touchpoints that a migrant, foreign student, tourist or business traveller has. From acquiring a visa (something millions more will likely have to do post-Brexit) to arriving at an airport such as Heathrow, there are thousands of experiences that will shape people’s perceptions of this nation. When Glasgow wanted to improve its image, city leaders worked with taxi drivers. These moments all matter. And there are usually humans behind them.
What’s crucial, of course, is that leaders themselves behave in line with the identity: this is where Britain needs to take stock quickly, or else lose this opportunity. Because your people are more likely to follow your example than your carefully-crafted words. Similarly, in Brexit Britain, though the Brexiteers insisted they did not want to keep out migrants who worked and paid tax, their message is interpreted bluntly by many who hear it. But building a strong brand is not just about avoiding missteps or misperceptions. It is about behaving positively in brand consistent ways, and the government is in desperate need of a brand playbook at this critical time.
Nader Tavassoli is Professor of Marketing at London Business School, where he founded the Walpole Luxury Management Programme, as well as non-executive chairman of The Brand Inside.
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