What is Scotland without the union? Does Scottish independence mark an ascendance of Englishness? What of the essence of the kingdom itself?
As Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to formally activate Section 30 of the Scotland Act, required to trigger an independence referendum north of the border, it all feels a little déjà vu. Except, whichever way you look at it, the world has irrevocably changed since 2014, with the Brexit decision throwing new light onto where Scotland feels its heart lies and a whirlwind of global economic uncertainty exacerbating this soul-searching.
The effect of 2014, however, was very clearly the release of a tartan genie from its whiskey bottle. What the campaign and subsequent referendum did was allow a global conversation platform for Scotland to project what it stands for as a separate identity, putting forward a set of codes and values that stood it apart from the more malleable Britishness. As a nation, it represented an alternative version of what an independent Scotland could stand for in the 21st century, apart from the collective of the United Kingdom.
The effects of this awakening shouldn’t be underestimated in the way the Scottish self-identify. Indeed, the BBC acknowledges that ‘Overall in Scotland, 62% of people chose Scottish as their sole identity with 8% choosing British only and a further 18% ticking both.’ But that relates to how people see themselves. What does that actually mean and how will it change how both Scottish and British brands communicate? If 2016 is anything to go by, making an assumption on the state of brands in the Union would likely be anything but accurate. However, there are several themes we could explore when thinking of the effect a split could create.
At the time of the last referendum, David Haigh of Brand Finance wrote that: "The combined nation brand values for an independent Scotland and England are likely to be substantially lower than that of a united UK, in the medium term at the very least." The last time Scotland went to the polls, the effect on Brand Britain’s equity in the run-up was striking. As a nation brand, the growth in value of the UK was muted for around two years in the run-up to the vote. The ‘no’ vote saw the UK’s nation brand value surge 20% almost immediately to $2.8 trillion. Scotland could feel the blow of losing equity from the power of Britishness and its perceived value around the world. What’s left of the UK could have a delicate task in stabilising its reputation and to re-establish a credible identity without one of its children.
But that would be the worst-case scenario. Britishness is a sum of its whole, to which Scotland contributes. Britishness itself is a collection of very fluid, malleable values. In regards to how Britishness can and is used by brands, its values and attributes have always been layered and used as such; these values would continue to contribute to Scottish brands, even if it became independent as a nation. The notions of Britishness transcend four nations with their own national qualities. Britishness lends habits behaviours or symbols – it forms a cloak over which other identities reside.
The longer-term trend around the morphing ways that provenance is used and received also mitigates a hammer blow to Scottish brands or other brands in the union. There’s always been some resistance to a homogenised British identity anyway and there’s a layered approach to identity through provenance in these contexts. Regional and hyperlocal have grown to engender more saliency with consumers, as an antidote to ‘one-size-fits-all’ national brands and as flagbearers of authenticity and in the case of food produce, freshness. Scotland itself has its own strong brands and visual cues that these brands employ, from tartan to thistles, grouses to glens. It has developed this robust nation brand even within the greater UK. Some of its brands, like Highland Springs or Johnnie Walker use these overtly. Others, like McVities or Standard Life, have brands that sound and feel more internationalist in tone, with values that are in line with those of Britishness.
So, what does identity politics really mean for brands? Well, the most successful brands always have an ear to the ground; they listen to their consumers and then tweak their machinery accordingly. Making sure they are in tune and aware of the landscape, therefore, rather than any wholesale repositioning exercise in all but the most extreme cases, would be the right approach. Macro-trends around provenance are more likely to influence consumers’ decisions than political posturing.
Interestingly, the latest census finds that although more people in the four nations are identifying solely with their home nation, younger, more diverse, urban dwellers were selecting British as an identity. Perhaps this group feels the looser set of values more accurately defines them. Either way, it highlights that splitting along borders doesn’t truly reflect how identity groups are affecting brand choices. Britishness, it would appear, is ironically an identity that may be more at home in the 21st century than ever.
Originally published in The Drum