Act 3: What Consumers Think

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. 

THE BATTLE FOR LOVE AND ATTENTION

We posed a series of questions to 1,000 demographically representative UK adults in a survey conducted by Lightspeed (Kantar). Interpreting the EU Referendum as a wake-up call not only for British politics but also for the way brands are interpreted by their audiences in the UK, we asked a series of questions at this watershed moment in our national dialogue to ascertain the state of Britishness today and its efficacy as a tool for brands.

We started by looking at which British brands people most admired and respected. Providing a diverse list of 30 brands across a variety of sectors, we asked all of the respondents to rank their five favourites. The brands that came out consistently on top were BBC, Marks & Spencer, Cadbury, 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 in the landscape. Indeed, you could describe the BBC as the most flexible monolithic brand in the world. Its appeal among 18-24 year olds was also high, with 44% putting it in their top five. This itself was interesting, because it goes some way towards dispelling the myth that ‘digital natives’ do not feel as affectionate towards a brand traditionally associated with its onscreen broadcast output. The BBC is a brand that is built on heritage but still looks resolutely to the future and pushes itself to the cutting edge of technological advances. Its adoption of iPlayer before the other big organisations in the industry is testament to that forward-thinking.

46.1 % of respondents chose the BBC as their most admired and respected British brand

This balance – as well as an appreciation of the range and quality of services and programmes offered by the BBC – allows it to take the top spot.

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. There was an incredibly strong female bias that increased significantly among those aged 55+. However, when we asked respondents whether they believe that the brand is capable of uniting the nation, only 7.2% of people gave a positive response.

Cadbury, which came third, stands alone in terms of an FMCG company that gained such widespread admiration. The brand also scores well on uniting the nation. It is the ‘standard received taste’ of British chocolate. This supports another key finding from the survey: that foreign ownership, however initially controversial, often stabilises or even enhances the reputation and success of British brands. Cadbury was purchased by Mondelez, formerly Kraft Foods, in 2010 and it was bitterly resented at the time as the sale of a ‘national treasure’. Yet it seems to be thriving in terms of public reputation.

Boots was fourth and the Post Office fifth. Boots was chosen by 32% of people to be in their top five – its appeal did not lean towards a specific age group but it was particularly female-inclined. Despite the fact that it has seen huge declines in its core postal and government services, the Post Office is placed fifth in the list of most respected brands. Bricks and mortar, local presence and longevity perhaps count for a lot.

21.2% Committed to invention and improvement, Dyson was the only manufacturing company to score well

Often cited as the epitome of customer service, John Lewis did not feature in the top five, coming in at sixth with 23.7%. Dyson, committed to invention and improvement, was the only manufacturing company to score well, achieving 21.2%. In the food retail sector, Tesco seems to have overcome its last two years of turmoil, securing ninth spot with 19.3% of the group’s selections (versus 14.8% for Waitrose and 13.3% for Sainsbury’s).

Trailing behind in the rankings are brands such as Mini, WH Smith, Innocent, BP, GSK, Prudential, Burberry, and AstraZeneca. What is surprising on a first examination is that many of the most internationally successful, globally high-profile British brands do not rank highly in the British public’s mind. Offering its own highly creative blend of tradition and eclecticism, Burberry attempted to reinvent the retail and luxury sectors with its instant shopping and digital drive, and has seen enormous success in markets such as China and the US. Yet the brand only featured in 3% of people’s selections. Burberry targets a niche audience for expensive, luxury products so perhaps tangible popularity across the spectrum is unrealistic. Burberry’s ‘distinctly British attitude’ is also one of a performative nature – it makes use of British symbols but predominantly displays these to the world; therefore, its type of Britishness is packaged for different eyes.

GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca are amongst the worst-performing brands on our prompted list of 30 British companies, with only 3.7% and 1.8% of the public respectively putting them in their top five. Possibly due to being associated with ‘grudge purchases’, pharmaceutical companies, it seems, would need to compellingly communicate their corporate purpose and story and become more obviously patient-centric to win greater public respect. WH Smith is a brand that’s changed very little in how it looks and sounds in recent years; results would indicate that this staidness has been noticed by consumers.

THAT STRANGE THING CALLED BRITISHNESS

We then asked all respondents what qualities were most important to them in the brands that they love. There’s something ironic in the results from brands typically associated with Britishness because, for all the espousing of British heritage, excellence and qualities, consumers don’t actually rank Britishness very highly when thinking about what matters most to them. More important to consumers are aspects such as the quality of products; the staff and customer service experience; and the skills, craftsmanship and expertise of a brand. Coming in at the bottom of the list are a brand’s culture and values (4th); its Britishness and British heritage (5th); and finally, its personality and voice (6th). 25% of the survey selected Britishness and British heritage as the most important aspect of a brand, compared to 54.3% putting the quality of products in top position, and 35.9% doing the same for staff and customer service.

25% of the survey selected Britishness and British heritage as the most important aspect of a brand

The importance of these rational, intrinsic qualities suggests that many British consumers are not prone to overt patriotism or sentiment swaying their brand choices. In a globalised trading environment it is the fundamental product quality and craftsmanship that matters more than provenance. This may explain why Dyson was the only British manufacturing company to score well in the most admired brands category, with 21.2 % putting it in their top five. The quality and innovative prowess of the product is the most consistently communicated aspect from the organisation.

Equally, culture and values, despite the growing concerns with social purpose and environmental issues, are lower in the pecking order than one might expect, although still ranked above Britishness in terms of influencing loyalty. The importance of culture and values rises with age, disproving the notion that millennials are the only group concerned with ethics.

A VERY PECULIAR PARADOX

When it comes to the way Brits believe British brands should market themselves post-Brexit, there are strongly divided views. A significant 41.8% believe that brands should emphasise their Britishness more to appeal to a wider range of global consumers. They clearly feel that a British identity post-Brexit is even more important and not a tarnished asset. This view is especially prevalent amongst those aged 55+ and somewhat more prevalent amongst men, a profile which corresponds with many Brexit voters.

Four out of 10 people feel that Brexit should make no difference to how British companies sell themselves. Two in 10, however, think that British companies should emphasise their heritage less and highlight their other qualities – product quality, expertise – more. Significantly, 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 Britishness as a quality, and British companies by association, as isolationist. Overall however, there seems to be a strange tension between the way in which Britishness is valued as a standalone attribute versus how a significant number of respondents feel that it should be utilised in organisations’ branding.

7/10 people aren't concerned about foreign companies taking over British brands

JWT Europe, one of our sister WPP companies, did a survey of 1,000 people on the Friday after the referendum and found that three out of four people believed that the ‘essence’ of Britain would now change, with many saying this would be for the worse. Indeed, 69% of those polled said that the referendum would have a negative impact on brands. It seems that in the two months between their survey and ours – conducted in the wake of inertia and lack of clarity over what ‘Brexit’ actually looks like – the number of people who feel that Brexit will have a negative impact on British brands has diminished significantly. It’s likely that macro-trends in politics and world economies are slowly reframing the discourse around national identities and provenance.

In line with exploring the importance of where a brand ‘comes from’ or its ‘birthplace’, we asked respondents about foreign takeovers of British brands. As is commonplace in the globalised markets where brands operate, more and more British brands have been taken over by international companies – Walmart bought Asda, Walgreens purchased Boots, BMW owns Mini and Rolls Royce. Does this change our opinions of them?

41.8% believe that brands should emphasise their Britishness more to appeal to a wider range of global consumers

Just under a quarter of the population resents foreign takeovers and this resentment rises sharply over the age of 45. However, a large proportion – seven out of 10 people – aren’t concerned about foreign companies taking over British brands: 31.7% are mildly upset but carry on purchasing the brand; a further 27.8% say it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever and a final 11.8% don’t mind as long as the character of the brand remains the same. Very few – one in 20 – people believe that foreign owners have made British brands better. Overall this indicates a general sense of ambivalence towards takeovers.

What’s fascinating about these results is that even though Britishness as a standalone attribute ranks low on what is important to consumers, a sizeable number of respondents indicate that Brexit requires greater emphasis of that particular quality. It seems paradoxical to value it so little as an attribute, but to indicate that its significance going forward is more important than ever.

A TANGLED WEB

Obviously, it would be far too simplistic to assume that a one-size-fits-all model is appropriate. There are a series of interesting paradoxes in the survey which sit below the surface of the responses. For example, if Britishness as an attribute ranks so low, why do nearly 42% of respondents feel that, post-Brexit, British brands should emphasise their provenance more? What do the chosen top 10 admired brands tell us about the tastes and most admired characteristics of the British populous?

One could argue that they are all in some way or another embodying elements of the Demos model of 1997, today, in 2017. This in itself suggests that although it feels like there’s an intangibleness to the definition of what Britishness actually is, there are underpinning codes which are tried and tested.

Combine these with a world that has socially and technologically revolutionised, however, and you inject a whole plethora of sweeping transformative trends into an already constantly mutating definition. The research serves to imply that, more than ever, there’s a very intricate concoction that defines Britishness in a more nuanced and modern way, one which requires reflection and unpicking. It requires a new approach which embraces contradiction.

Sophistication in audience and advancement in technology make complex brand identities more possible and appealing. Brands shouldn’t shy away. There’s never been a better time to embrace this peculiar challenge.

Download the full report here.