Slogans are not brands. Products, and companies have slogans, but if their brand isn’t up to scratch, then they are in trouble. Countries also have slogans — our present government seems especially partial to them. But if your country’s brand is not credible, if you are hard to negotiate with, less concerned with what the customer needs than with what you want to sell and if you lack distinguishing features that mark you out from the rest, then you don’t win.
In 2012, when Britain staged the Olympics, the country excelled in projecting a strong and clear message about Britain’s identity and character, and in bringing the nation together. It was a clear projection of “Brand Britain”. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony epitomised this. We didn’t just play to our history and tradition, but to our inventiveness, values and imagination. The Isles of Wonder theme had a cast of 10,000 volunteers and the show featured references to Shakespeare and Harry Potter, and was accompanied by references to UK icons such as Duran Duran, Rowan Atkinson and James Bond. The Queen and staff from the NHS both participated. We were multi-cultural. Mo Farah was British, not a Somali immigrant. “Brand Britain” was about creativity and having a sense of humour. We took what we did, but not ourselves too seriously.
The essence of great brands is consistency. If I asked for two words to describe “Brand Germany” first in 2012 and then again in 2020, both times you would probably get “engineering and efficiency”. The world has been impressed, but also not surprised, at how well Germany has dealt with coronavirus. In contrast, other countries look at how the UK has handled coronavirus and are surprised, but not impressed. What we’ve done has been well below what our external reputation would suggest. Any decent brand manager would ask why the narrative before and since Brexit around Britain seem so at odds with the image of 2012. We’ve gone from multicultural Cool Britannia looking forward for its next generation, to backward-looking Little England, using the war and Blitz metaphors along with imperial nostalgia to reclaim an imagined past.
It’s very British that the closest the country has seen to a shared collective spirit for years was in the midst of a pandemic. But much has changed in the last few months. The collective national goodwill and willingness to comply with lockdown was destroyed by Boris Johnson in order to protect his strategic advisor. The Queen knighted Captain Tom, but the Prime Minister also gave peerages to his own brother, to the son of Alexander Lebedev, a Russian businessman and former KGB agent and to several others whose only apparent qualification was that they had supported Brexit. Leavers won the vote, but if the Prime Minister wants to bring the country together, then as a supposed “One Nation Tory” he needs to move on from that.
The prospect of Boris Johnson ignoring the advice of five previous UK Prime Ministers who warned him he was undermining Britain’s essence and reputation globally was deeply alarming. He was not only brazenly threatening to break international law, but the agreement that he had signed with the EU. In the process he was changing the basis on which he was elected. Johnson had promised the British people an “oven ready” deal. As John Major put it: “For generations, Britain’s word — solemnly given — has been accepted by friend and foe. Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct… If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.” This is how brands are destroyed.
David Wheldon is one of the world’s most renowned brand builders. He was in charge of brands like Coca Cola and Vodafone, which he turned into the UK’s most valuable brand. Following the 2008 financial crisis he was at Barclays and then RBS, unpicking the damage done to their brands, businesses and to the UK by those banks’ reckless leadership. It’s a shame for the country that he is not Johnson’s strategic advisor. Wheldon has two preferred definitions of what a brand is: “A brand is what people say when you are not in the room” and “a brand is what it does”.
By wrapping himself in the flag, admiring and mimicking Churchill, and by clapping the NHS, Johnson is tapping into Brand Britain. But he isn’t growing it. This is down to the contradictory nature of what he does and says. The same person who so vigorously defends our statues and lets his attack dogs loose on the BBC for dropping the singing of Rule Britannia, can also conveniently airbrush out Britain’s sense of fair play and its foundation in the rule of law. Britain’s brand history as the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, the “mother of parliaments”, the signers of the Magna Carta, the creators of the NHS and the respected voice of sense on the world stage don’t matter anymore.
Britain is leaving the EU and seeking to push Brand Britain overseas in order to attract trade deals. It’s hard to find any commentator or thinker of note from outside the UK who can see the sense in why especially now, Britain’s own government is seeking to sabotage the image of Brand Britain with its anti-BBC rhetoric. Whatever reforms the BBC may need, why now? And why does the government seek so openly to put the BBC between a rock (the removal of its funding) and a hard place (becoming politically compliant)?
Outside the UK the BBC is arguably viewed as one of Britain’s most powerful soft tools in growing Brand Britain. It reaches an enormous 426 million viewers and listeners abroad per week. The BBC plays a fundamental role in reinforcing Britain’s culture and the allure of Britishness. Its output, whether it be the News, Sherlock, The Bodyguard, Strictly or Attenborough’s Blue Planet, is respected and valued round the world. Why when several nations are attempting to emulate the success of the BBC by launching their own global networks would its own government attack it? Why when the British Government is pinning its hopes on a US trade deal, and Reuters reveals the BBC is the most trusted news brand in the US, would the British Government not support it?
The Reputation Index is one of the major ongoing studies that assess country brands. It shows the UK as a country brand fell two positions in 2019 to rank number 18. The RI put this down to in part to global scepticism linked to Brexit and the competence of Parliament, which has led to emotional polarisation around the UK brand. In short, the gap between how the UK perceives itself and how it’s viewed around the world has grown.
The missteps, untruths, U-turns, crony appointments and policy failures of this government are well catalogued and they don’t play well for our international reputation. According to Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, Executive Vice President of the RI, 2019 revealed that, “The desire for effective government is becoming disproportionately more important. It’s not just about the aesthetic beauty of a country — you may want to live, work and play there, but is it well run?”
A Freedom of Information request revealed that just under 11,000 EU academics who were working in the UK have quit their position since Brexit — 4,000 in the last year alone. Oxford, Edinburgh and Cambridge have seen the largest number of EU academics leave since the Brexit vote. This drain in our academia has coincided with the A-level fiasco. A recent survey by Navitas shows that the UK’s reputation as a study destination is suffering as a result. Only 30 per cent agree that “the way this country’s government has handled the coronavirus has made it a more attractive study destination”. This is compared to 85 per cent for New Zealand, 78 per cent for Australia, and 75 per cent for Canada.
Heathrow is rated the world’s number one airport hub. Frankfurt is number two. Now consider the effect on Brand Britain, its tourism, business and international reputation when your flagship airport is in a country where people are struggling to get a Covid test. How does it help Brand Britain when your main country rival, Frankfurt Airport can do 10,000 tests a day for travellers, and give them their results in five hours? It is probably quicker to fly to Germany to be tested. If you want to see in a nutshell the difference between Brand Britain now and Brand Germany, there it is.
Something similar is happening to “Brand USA”. The country’s reputation has been in steep decline in the RI country study since 2016. It was No 36 on the 2019 list, and that was pre-coronavirus. There are lessons to be learned for Britain. A key one is that the US’s brand now lacks emotional appeal. According to RI, the UK’s image is still viewed favourably by its own citizens. In contrast, the US seems to have lost trust, both internationally and domestically, as a consequence of the nationalist rhetoric that often emanates from the White House.
Brand USA has a disconnect between the rhetoric of Trump and the national reality. Even in 2019, while the US economy was strong, there was a simple question it isn’t easy to answer – what exactly does Brand USA stand for? As Stephen Hahn-Griffiths of RI stated, “It’s not good enough to have an advanced economy — it’s about what you’re doing to help society progress in the right way.”
The UK doesn’t have the sheer hard power in our brand of the US, China or EU. For all of Trump’s nonsense, the sheer scale and influence of the US and its businesses are powerful protection. The same cannot be said for the UK. Brand Britain and the soft reputation of the UK matters even more to Britain’s future success and happiness. As the UK Government’s own gap between its rhetoric and reality gets ever wider, Johnson/Cummings now need to provide real answers to the question “what exactly does Brand Britain really stand for?”
Our national reputation is much bigger and more robust than any one government or any one Prime Minister. The Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index (NBI) is another noted attempt to track the power of national brands over time. Post Brexit, but pre-coronavirus and the UK elections, its 2019 study showed that while Brand Britain had slipped, it was still strong. Germany was number one in the rankings and the UK had moved from third to fourth.
A global survey by Statista in 2017 showed buyers ranked the UK as the third highest-ranked individual country. Only Germany and Switzerland came higher. A study by Barclays in 2018 found that 42 per cent of international consumers were willing to pay more for UK manufactured goods. In terms of higher education, Oxford is regarded globally as the world’s number one University. Cambridge is third. The UK is the highest net exporter of financial services and London (a powerful part of Brand Britain) vies with Wall Street to be the world’s financial capital. Brand Britain includes a whole host of other business sectors from architecture to biochemistry where it has a pre-eminent reputation. The Royal Family contributes $2.4 billion to the UK economy. And the list goes on…
But Britain needs to beware. Brand reputations that take years to establish can be lost in an instant. Past reputation will protect a brand. However, like planes, brands can only stay in the air for so long when their engines have been shut off. As they start to fall you need to turn the engines on again — or else you plummet.