Act 4: How to use Britishness

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. 

We know that Britishness is a term bandied around in a wide range of contexts. We also know that its definition has been in a constant state of flux and change since the post-war period. As a nation, our collective experiences continually shape our values and behaviours. Defining ‘Britishness’, with its many historical iterations and shifting connotations, has always been tricky.

Brands have often used this ever-shifting composite to talk to us in ways we understand, encouraging us to see ourselves reflected in their personalities and products. However, as it’s become more difficult to measure Britishness and whether its impact on communications is fragmenting or unifying, so its usage has diminished or been downplayed. 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.

Brexit throws this predicament into a harsh, naked light, framed almost poetically by the rhetoric and semantics surrounding the 48/52 divide and all the implications of this. There have been countless editorials, rankings, interviews and predictions on the effect it may or may not have on the perceptions of Britain at home and abroad; its potential and real consequences for the economy; the value of its brands in a new climate; and its effects on consumers, our political parties, our families and ourselves. We’ve acknowledged these discussions. But we wanted to take a longer-term, more holistic view of trends within provenance, Britishness, and the use of both as tools for brands in the future.

Using the omnibus results as stimulus, we interviewed a set of experts from established and successful British brands to facilitate discussion and insight around where Britishness goes from here post-referendum. We used the findings to inform our perspective. Their insights help to dissect and explore the results further.

AMBIVALENCE IS NOT DISASSOCIATION

“British people have a stronger allegiance to Britain than we’re willing to admit.” – Elly Cockcroft, MCC

On first reading, the omnibus findings would indicate that an underlying thread tying together the responses is a lack of consistency over what ‘Britishness’ means to Britons as groups and individuals. It seems to suggest that the people least likely to buy into Britishness are the British themselves. Indeed, overt Britishness seems to be playing a less and less important role in the lives and identities of the British themselves, especially in younger age groups. It is therefore natural that its position on a hierarchical list is low in terms of the way in which people define their relationships with the brands they choose.

“If you have to choose, quality will always win in a consumer’s eyes over Britishness. However, some British brands have a type of quality in their offer that’s inseparable from the way many of us view our national character. For example, we view John Lewis as the epitome of quality, trust and service but would its offer feel quite so true if it weren’t backed up by the inherent sense of Britishness?” - Louise Kyme, BHF

However, it would be a surface-level mistake for brands to listen wholeheartedly to this because, as you’d expect, it’s a bit more complex than that. People still want to feel a collective sense of belonging, they still need a reference point which links them to a wider, larger narrative. There’s an individualism in brand choice, but the values and attributes associated with Britishness still contribute to an experience that tangentially borrows from associations with the national character. Some components of this run deep – creativity, eccentricity, wit, tradition and heritage – to name a few. What’s interesting is that we come to associate many different facets with nationality, but these facets 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 attributes associated with it, the core components underpinning it. It needn’t display a Union Jack tail-fin or have a date or city of its establishment to succeed, but in fact, have qualities associated with a more abstract understanding of the collective national psyche. Quality, service and craftsmanship are important – separate them from the attribute of Britishness and they trump it. But what’s evident is that in the case of some of the most loved brands, those attributes of quality, service and craftsmanship are intrinsically tied to Britishness in its expression.

Many of these attributes are linked to the fundamentals identified in the Demos report 20 years ago. It’s how they are deployed that’s changed, which is only natural given the changed nature of the world and brand communications in general.

“When going global, there most likely isn’t a lot to be gained by simply wrapping your products in a Union Jack. Over-identifying with national identity in such a volatile world may actually be detrimental. Nothing truly successfully British actually relies that heavily on overt Britishness anyway.” – Callum Hunter, Collins Debden Ltd.

A POST-NATIONAL SOCIETY?

“Brands like Land Rover, Dyson, Rolls Royce – they don’t explicitly shout about their Britishness, but it’s implicit in everything they do.” - Lynn Scrivener, RWH Travel Ltd.

The nature of national provenance in branding has been changing for some time, regardless of recent events within the UK. In a globalised world where exposure to such a vast array of international products, trends and tastes creates the semblance – real and perceived – of homogeneity, brand authenticity for many consumers is increasingly tied to more defined locality. In reaction to this, many brands are choosing to express or highlight more regional or hyperlocal provenance. Others choose to define themselves globally, seeing the benefits in attracting consumer segments across borders.

Mixing global and local is a key theme emerging in the marketplace today. These have been two opposites of a complicated balance leading to a reappraisal of the ‘one nation’ approach. Provenance as a brand attribute has adapted and continues to adapt as a reaction. Consumers want experiences and brands that fit their perceived selves, and this is no longer linked to nationality or nationalistic leanings. Many crave a more local authenticity because it acts as an antidote to globalisation’s implicit ‘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 Hiut Denim play on their respective localism, giving their consumers a purchase steeped in a local story. Mulberry plays on its localism of being based in Somerset and all that the idyllic qualities of the English countryside conjure emotionally in the minds of consumers. This interchangeability between hyperlocal and global identification is a juxtaposition balanced more naturally by a younger demographic; its effect is unfavourable for brands emphasising generic patriotism.

“Provenance is of course shifting and people in different places will of course view it differently, though Britishness is still important. It’s simply that, as a concept, it’s less explained and less understood in explicit terms.” – John Pearce, Made in Britain

The splintering of consumers represents a sand dune of complexity, shifting a once distinct, easily-minable set of values and attributes and their application. Do we live in a post-national identity society? It would be churlish to call it so at the moment, but it’s at least one where it’s increasingly difficult for brands to identify or communicate 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 same tool it once was for British brands.

“When you say Italy or France to someone, it conjures up a very clear identity. It’s the same for cars in Germany. In Britain, it’s hard to pin that set of identity cues together. London and Scotland have their own incredibly strong attributes; these are perhaps stronger than those associated with Britain itself.” – Callum Hunter, Collins Debden Ltd.

Ultimately though, consumers are still using and purchasing across the spectrum, which includes those harnessing British attributes. Brands need to bridge this local/global paradigm to decide how they define and project their provenance on the spectrum in a way that feels authentic to them. National provenance still has a role in this.

THE BREXIT CONUNDRUM

“Post-Brexit, we will have to rediscover our identity and define what it actually means. We need to establish who we are, without it appearing old-fashioned or imperialistic. To do this we need to embrace creativity and new solutions. Perhaps a way of expressing it is ‘understated excellence’ without an arrogance that makes us unapproachable.” – Vernon Soare, ICAEW

When considering the result of the EU referendum and its implications, it’s important to consider the relationship between Brand Britain and British brands. If we’re to believe that brands take their communication cues from the attributes associated with the national composite, then the vote exposes several fault lines which need to be acknowledged and considered.

However, if you view the result of the vote as a tense, paradoxical struggle between two key themes of attributes – that of tradition and heritage, which represent solidity and longevity, and that of eccentricity and individualism, which represent rebellion and outrageousness – it’s then that you begin to understand some of the challenges that brands face within this context are challenges that have always existed. That’s because they exist deep within the nation’s understanding of itself. Understatement and insecurity butt against a sense of exceptionalism, conformity grinds against eccentricity, politeness against wit and humour. The expectation that, across a wide range of communications platforms, brands should already be conducting this balancing act has been established. The reality, however, is that because it’s difficult to implement, it’s often pushed to the side.

What the referendum vote has done is bring these issues, these tensions that have previously hovered and been managed just under the surface, to the fore. It splits the nation across a whole series of fault lines, from age and social class to urban, rural and intra-national. It spans all traditional political denominations. It highlights divisions in a way which hasn’t been seen before. Basic segmentation wasn’t fit for purpose long before the referendum, but what Brexit has prompted is an irreversible validation that consumers have fragmented and that brands can no longer lazily define who they are through a simplistic national lens. Indeed, more than four years ago, the BBC conducted a survey that suggests we now live in a society with seven social classes, complicating the more traditional, widely-held views on segmentation.2 All of this serves to reveal a fragmented and more self-aware audience. British provenance as a tool has, therefore, become a trickier beast to manage, a dangerous path of potential potholes and missteps.

Brexit may make national provenance less important to some consumer segments, but as a tool it will be amplified for others. Brands channelling ‘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 more subtle way, either through associations with the local or the global, or through brands that promote heavier shades of the attributes they relate to most.

Commonly used attributes, employed overtly or not, are now viewed through a more divisive national lens. In short, it’s harder to appeal to the widest audience possible on the ticket of Britishness, because its definition is so divided. However, brands do have the flexibility to play within the parameters of these contradictions.

“There’s no getting away from the fact that heritage offers a huge amount of leverage when it comes to being a British brand overseas.” Diana Kay, McLaren

Download the full report here.