Act 2: When did we become British?

Our research, To Be or Not to Be: Decoding The Great British Identity Crisis, examines consumers’ and marketers’ attitudes to the value of national provenance today. We will be sharing our findings from the report in a weekly series, taking a closer look at the components of what Britishness now means for brands. 

Notes on a small island

The winding tale of the etymological beginnings of ‘Britain’ is as complex as our current state psyche. ‘Britain’ originates from the Old English word ‘Breoton’ which in turn comes from Latin ‘Brittones’ (Britons). This was superseded in Middle English (c.1150 to c.1470) by forms deriving from Old French – ‘Bretaigne’ from Latin ‘Britannia’.

Wales was annexed into the Kingdom of England in 1536 under the Acts of Union. ‘Britain’ became a largely historical term until revived in the mid-17th century as the possible union of England and Scotland became a subject of political discussion. Britannia is the personification of Britain, usually depicted as a helmeted woman with a shield and trident.

The figure appeared on Roman coins and was revived with the name Britannia on the coinage of Charles II (1630–85). In 1707, England and Scotland signed a treaty resulting in the unified Kingdom of Great Britain. After merging with the Kingdom of Ireland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. Then, in 1922, the majority of Ireland voted in favour of seceding from the union, leaving behind the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we have today.

Great Britain is technically the name of the island that comprises England, Scotland, and Wales, whereas the United Kingdom is in fact the political unit that includes these three countries and Northern Ireland. ‘British’ is used mostly in the context of nationality and, for some (i.e. all former colonies), has strong connotations of the British Empire, which was at its height in the 1920s when it covered a quarter of the world’s land mass. But in addition to the territorial, political and nationalistic implications of ‘Britishness’, there are also cultural definitions – art, literature, music, film, sporting pride, architectural landmarks, and of course, the royal family. These are decoded differently across class, age and religion, creating a whole range of diverse interpretations.

Big and Bold Britannia, Still

From the post-war era, right up until the 1980s, there were many state-owned, monopolistic brands, both contributing to the reputation of Britishness and deriving equity from it. It was a period of time when a brashness in interpretation was still riding high on the United Kingdom’s sense of self in the world. Indeed, it is easy to forget how long and dominant the roll-call of brands that fitted into this category was: British Gas, British Steel, British Rail, British Petroleum, British Airways, British Leyland, British Telecom and the British Broadcasting Corporation. These were the proud silverware on the sideboard of the world’s first industrialised nation.

Many were engineering-based or utilities companies. They were, in the main, professional, solid, reassuring but uninspiring. It was often the innovative ‘child’ products of these steady ‘parent’ corporations that attracted admiration and attention: Concorde from British Airways; Mini from British Leyland; the Inter-City 125 trains from British Rail and the ‘creative R&D Lab’ known as BBC2 from the BBC. This sense of duality, of solidness mixed with experimentation, is itself an interesting component of the British psyche which has found expression through branding.

Margaret Thatcher’s subsequent privatisation of many of these state-owned companies was revolutionary, released energy and created a new breed of ‘ordinary shareholders’. Her commercial instincts may have been radical but her view of Britishness was highly traditional as was her successor’s, John Major. However, her initiatives were a watershed moment which asked the British public and British brands to consider their role in a radically reshaped economy and society.

New Labour’s 90s Reinvention

The 90s brought a wholesale attempt to re-define Britishness in the run-up to a new Millennium with the election of Tony Blair.

‘Having redefined what it means to be left-wing, Tony Blair planned to do the same for Britishness’, announced The Economist in August 1997. Blair and his team wanted to drop Thatcher’s imperialist, sometimes xenophobic, view of Britishness and instead face outwards towards the world.

A report by think-tank Demos was commissioned by New Labour in 1997.1 It describes a model of Britishness that has an anchoring centre of integrity, tradition, fair play, quality and thoughtfulness. Around  this nucleus are six whirling elements: creativity, eccentricity, humour, challenge, wit and outrageousness. In successful British brands, these elements are held within the gravitational pull of the centre rather than spinning off on a wild trajectory. At the same time, a key observation from the report saw that British products were found to have a staid image amongst foreign consumers, which led firms such as BT and British Airways to play down their Britishness. Indeed, British Airways famously re-designed its livery with an eclectic range of ethnic tail-fin designs by artists from different world cultures. This was to portray BA as a global airline transporting ‘citizens of the world’.

It is interesting to see what survived from this Blair era of self-consciously ‘Cool Britannia’. One aspect would be Scottish and Welsh devolution, itself both a complication and enrichment of Britishness. The second is the political idea of the ‘third way’, whereby modern British governments no longer conform to the norms of political party brands but seek to combine social justice with economic well-being.

This stretches from Blair’s cultivation of big business, previously sacrilegious for Labour, through David Cameron’s championing of gay marriage, unlikely from a Tory, to Theresa May’s current concerns about worker representation, business ethics and reducing inequality. This theme of placing social responsibility within the economic sphere has undoubtedly had an effect on how brands are portraying themselves in the current climate as they seek to balance profit and social value. The zeitgeist of the role brands now play as a corporate pillar within our societies demands that of them.

The third successful element of the Blair era was the Olympics. New Labour set up a national sports academy focused on sports in which Britain could win gold medals. This has paid handsome dividends in the last two Olympics and Paralympics, which led to the next staging-post for brands and Britishness. In the run-up to London 2012, many British brands re-emphasised their Britishness as the world’s eyes settled on the United Kingdom. Yet it was a more eclectic, self-referential and stylish Britishness: take, for example, Stella McCartney’s Olympic kit with its fresh take on our flag and iconography (the Union Jack itself has proved to be frequently ripe for re-interpretation as Alexander McQueen’s frock-coat for David Bowie has also proved).

Most interesting of all was Danny Boyle’s Olympics ceremony with its extraordinary, quirky celebration of our Victorian engineering and industrial heritage; the humanity of the NHS; the loving irreverence and shared humour of the Queen apparently parachuting into the stadium; and our history of achievement up to the invention of the World Wide Web. This ceremony brought alive all the six ‘whirling’ characteristics identified many years earlier in Demos’s report on British identity without being aware of it as any kind of brief. This pointed the way towards a consistent, often intuitive, understanding of ‘Brand Britain’.

Whirling Atoms of Britishness

The metaphorical toolbox of attributes to which brands have had access is therefore varied and vast; it’s evident that many versions of ‘Britishness’ can fit such a malleable mould. However, we wanted, post-Brexit, to pose the question: what does Britishness mean for brands now? Do any elements of the Demos model still ring true? 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 in a post-referendum world need to change course, and what is the role of brands in shaping future opinions and notions?

To answer these questions, we combined research and data from a range of sources to understand the landscape and ascertain the successful, reoccurring themes. From this we propose a new way through which a brand can utilise its ‘Britishness’ in a new environment.

Download the full report here.