British Brands and Brexit

Has ‘Britishness’ for brands become a dirty word?

As a nation, our collective experiences shape our values and behaviours. Brands use this composite to talk to us in ways we understand, encouraging us to see ourselves reflected in their personalities and products. Defining ‘Britishness’ – with its many historical iterations and shifting connotations – has always been tricky.

Because of this, national identities have forever been fragmenting down a whole series of faultlines – from age, sex, ethnicity, social class, cultural awareness, and regional boundaries. In this respect, Britain fits the global trend of these shifts, usurping how marketers previously segmented audiences. A messy dichotomy ensues of who to target, when to target, and of course how.

The Brexit result was of seismic importance; its tentacles will now protrude into every sphere of life. The world has been drastically changing – politically, socially, technologically – and Britain hasn’t been exempt. Our British microcosm, and its peculiarities that tie back to our values and self-identification, now faces a pervasive confirmation, when looking in the mirror in a post-Brexit society, that the mirror hath definitely cracked. What do these cracks mean for brands? Is it an irreversible turning point, a fork in the road, or do we simply require a recalibration?

At the end of the day we are still consumers and as such we can relate to provenance with varying levels of loyalty and authenticity. Within the aforementioned contradictions – and for the purpose of drawing generalised conclusions from the 48/52 split – we can identify a younger, more urban, and socially mobile consumer who can comfortably wear their local and global identity (from London-made jam to Nike Huaraches); set in contrast to an older, more rural consumer, who have traditionally related to established, heritage ‘British’ and regional brands, such as M&S or McVities.

To compensate for the decline of the ‘one-nation’ approach, provenance as a brand attribute has had to adapt. Consumers want experiences and brands that fit their perceived selves, and this is now not always defined by nationality. Many crave local authenticity because it acts as an antidote to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. However, some within this audience will continue to identify with global brands because they speak to consumer types who see themselves as global citizens.

Apple is a global brand that many of us identify with because its design codes and values resonate with modern day living. By contrast, Yorkshire tea and Huit Denim play on their respective localism, giving their consumers a purchase steeped in a local story. This interchangeability between hyper-local and global identification is a juxtaposition balanced more naturally by a younger demographic; its effect is unfavorable for brands pedaling generic patriotism.

Basic segmentation was no longer fit for purpose long before the referendum, but what Brexit has prompted is an irreversible validation that consumers have irrevocably fragmented, and that brands can no longer lazily define who they are through a simplistic national lens. Even those attracted to ‘national’ brands have become more savvy. Let the all-British ghosts of Woolworths and BHS stand as specimens who fell behind on a high-street of brands putting personality-soaked stakes in the ground.

Brexit may make national provenance less important to some segments, but as a tool it will be amplified for others. Brands channeling ‘Britishness’ may hijack characteristics and marry these with ‘Englishness’ – this approach is more populist, nationalistic (with a capital N), and speaks to a segment with stronger tendencies to patriotism. Some brands may embrace this to connect with their segment. Others – who may have previously relied on the moniker “Best of British” – will recoil from its new connotations, searching instead to maintain familiarity in a subtler way.

The splintering of consumers represents a sand dune of complexity, shifting and muddling a once distinct and easily minable set of values and attributes. It goes beyond 48/52, a signifier that lacks the plurality of the interpretations of Britishness. It leaves brands with a contradictory and highly anecdotal national audience to address and a rocky road ahead. Do we live in a post-national identity society? I would say yes, or at least one where it’s increasingly difficult for brands to identify with a whole nation. Technology and globalisation mean that we all have complex, fluid consumer profiles, and national provenance as a tool is no longer the key to the British mass market.