Decoding Britishness

BREXIT EXPOSES A CRISIS IN MODERN BRITISH IDENTITY. BUT IT ALSO PROVIDES A MOMENT FOR REFLECTION ON WHAT BRITISHNESS REPRESENTS. WE WANTED, POST-REFERENDUM, TO ASK: WHAT DOES BRITISHNESS MEAN FOR BRANDS NOW? ARE PEOPLE LOYAL TO BRANDS BECAUSE THEY ARE BRITISH OR BECAUSE THEY ARE GOOD AT WHAT THEY DO AND INCIDENTALLY BRITISH? WILL ‘BRITISHNESS’ FOR BRANDS NOW NEED TO CHANGE COURSE? TO BE OR NOT TO BE IS OUR EXAMINATION OF THESE QUESTIONS, DELIVERING INSIGHTS FOR BUILDING SUCCESSFUL BRITISH BRANDS.

We believe that Brexit forces a choice: brands can continue to assimilate in a global order of homogeneity or can choose to refamiliarise themselves with the ingredients that make Britishness a potent force. Our report argues that by creating a balance of ingenuity and tradition, brands can redefine Britishness and take control of the national narrative in a way which is unique to them.

Combining the findings of an omnibus survey we conducted on the general public’s perception of British brands with interviews with leading marketers working in British companies and institutions, we’ve explored the key challenges when harnessing the power of national provenance for British brands today.

We started by looking at which British brands people most admired and respected. Providing a list of 30 brands across a variety of sectors, we asked respondents to rank their five favourites. The brands that were consistently ranked highest were BBC, Marks & Spencer, Cadbury’s, Boots, Post Office, John Lewis, Virgin, Dyson, Tesco and ITV.

The BBC came way ahead of any other brand in terms of admiration, with 46.1 % of people choosing it amongst their top five. This is a ringing endorsement of both the depth of the BBC’s public service values and its breadth of appeal: a rare combination on the landscape. Its appeal among 18-24-year-olds was also high, with 44% putting it in their top five. The BBC is built on heritage but still looks resolutely to the future and pushes itself to the cutting edge of technological advances.

High Street retailers featured heavily amongst the top five rankings, as one might expect due to their everyday visibility. M&S led the field, ranking second overall with 33.3% of respondents.

Cadbury’s, which came third, stands alone in terms of an FMCG company that gained widespread admiration. The brand also scored well when respondents were asked which brands unite the nation. It is the ‘standard received taste’ of British chocolate. This supports another key finding from the survey: that foreign ownership, however controversial initially, often stabilises or even enhances the reputation and success of British brands.

We then asked respondents which brand qualities they value most. Ironically, whilst we often espouse British heritage, excellence, and qualities, consumers don’t actually rank Britishness very highly when thinking about what matters most to them. The importance of more rational qualities suggests that British consumers are not prone to overt patriotism swaying their brand choices. In a globalised trading environment, it is the product quality that matters more than provenance.

However, when it comes to the way Brits believe British brands should market themselves post-Brexit, there are strongly divided views. 41.8% believe that brands should emphasise their Britishness more to appeal to a wider range of global consumers. This view is especially popular amongst those aged 55+ and somewhat more prevalent amongst men, a profile which corresponds with many Brexit voters. Two in 10, however, think that British companies should emphasise their heritage less and highlight other qualities more. This doubles to four out of 10 amongst 16-19-year-olds. It would be fair to assume that many of these respondents are ‘Remainers’ worried about Brexit casting and British companies as isolationist.

Overall, there is a tension between the way in which Britishness is valued as a standalone attribute versus how a significant number of respondents feel it should be utilised in organisations’ branding.

HOW TO USE BRITISHNESS

Defining ‘Britishness’ has always been tricky. However, as it’s become more difficult to measure Britishness and its impact on communications, so its usage has diminished. The quandary it poses to brands, who are uncertain about audience’s receptiveness, means that the potential potency of Britishness as an attribute has become diluted.

Britishness still contributes to an experience that borrows from associations with the national character. Some components of this run deep – creativity, eccentricity, wit, tradition and heritage. What’s interesting is that we associate many attributes with nationality, but these attributes work both within and outside a British frame. So more than ever, people no longer care about ‘Britishness’ per se, but are more concerned with the core components underpinning it. It needn’t display a Union Jack tail-fin or a city of establishment to succeed, but in fact have qualities associated with a more abstract understanding of the national psyche. Quality, service and craftsmanship are important – separate them from Britishness and they trump it. But, in the case of some of the most loved brands, those attributes are intrinsically tied to Britishness in its expression.

When considering the result of the EU referendum, it’s important to consider the relationship between Brand Britain and British brands. If you view the result as a tense, paradoxical struggle between two key themes of attributes – that of tradition and heritage and that of eccentricity and individualism – it’s then that you begin to understand that some of the challenges that brands face within this context are challenges that have always existed. They exist deep within the nation’s understanding of itself. What the referendum vote has done is bring these tensions to the fore. It’s split the nation and highlighted divisions in a way which hasn’t been seen before. Basic segmentation wasn’t fit for purpose long before the referendum, but Brexit validates the fact that consumers have fragmented and that brands can no longer define them through a simplistic national lens.

THE CENTRAL TENSION

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to leveraging Britishness. But by creating a balance of ingenuity and tradition, brands can take control of the national narrative.

There’s a social imperative here. Whilst consumers are ready to embrace the new, there’s also a desire to root these experiences in the familiar and safe. It’s a tale as old as time, but one which feels even more pervasive in a fast-paced, uncertain world. It’s out of sync symbiosis – messy, complex and often contradictory. And whilst tradition – a key attribute within this wider group –  is by no means the be-all and end-all to a brand’s DNA, it does offer many possibilities. It can demonstrate leadership and expertise. It can underline promises around trust and integrity. It can assure positive associations by aligning with a respected institution and its own set of British associations.

If we reflect on the dualistic aspects of Britishness however, we know that much can be done to soften tradition. Connection to quality and craft, those underpinning attributes of heritage, can be explored in a fresh manner, leading to new expressions for British brands’ stories. Or brands could tap into a notion of Britishness that places importance on ingenuity rather than tradition. This sense of eccentricity is central to the national psyche. Rebelliousness, wit, or a mixture of the two can play a role in creating brands that are self-aware and embrace individualism. They often acknowledge visual cues of the nation in their visual identity, yet routinely it’s in paradox with the unconventionality of the offer, injecting autonomy and coolness into a brand. Innovation is the driving life-force of the global economy. Tradition is solid, revered and often preferential, but for brands, ingenuity is a necessity.

THE CONCLUSION

What to do with this identity crisis? Firstly, try to categorise it in different terms. Think of it instead as a crisis of confidence which has led to a weakness of intent. Difficulties in identifying sentiment towards Britishness shouldn’t dissuade brands from using it in communications. Shying away from the challenge means you can’t reap the rewards. We’re a nation that defines itself through constant reinvention underlined by aspects of continuity. British brands can lead the way in harnessing complex, multi-faceted personalities.

Consumers’ notions of heritage are comprised of a sense of solidity, saturated with reinforcing stories and traditions. But it’s when they’re combined with fresh themes and attitudes that brands can resonate with new audiences while continuing to engage the existing base.

We believe that now, more than ever, it’s time for British brands to reclaim their Britishness. It’s in the interests of brands to build on and develop the positive associations for a new era.

Provenance matters, provenance attracts, provenance sells. Use it.

For further information and to obtain the copy of the report please contact Inga Howell inga@the-partners.com