Amid all the furore about Brexit, let’s have some good news. Britain is not Johnny no mates. At the global party we are the people that everyone wants to chat to. Nobody, to paraphrase Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, puts Britain in a corner.
That’s changing a little as we, or at least our politicians, determine what global Britain really means via the Brexit negotiations. WPP’s recent Best Country rankings Brand UK 2018 report found that Europe’s leaders and citizens now see the UK as a less open for business than they have in the past, for example.
But whatever deal gets hammered out, the businesses that export their goods and services to other parts of the world know that Britain’s country brand – the behaviours, attributes and areas of expertise that people abroad expect from us – will continue to be an important part of what gets the meeting or secures the deal.
That’s because country brands help define what people think each country is good at. A German engineering company gets a helping hand from its country brand while a French fashion house will find that doors open rather more easily than for ateliers from most other countries.
Conversely, a Chinese business selling premium, high-end artisan products might struggle because, according to the 2018 BrandZ Chinese Global Brand Builders report, most global consumers still perceive Chinese products to be low quality and cheap.
In reality however, innovation is shifting from ‘made in china’ to ‘created in China’. As a result, attitudes to ‘Brand China’ are changing across the world, particularly among some younger consumers united by their love of all things cool and affordable and an insatiable appetite for high-tech, quality products. Nonetheless defying country brand conventions can sometimes feel a little like pushing water uphill and China, like Britain, has a way to go.
The good news
The broad perceptions of Britain are a leader on the global stage. We are ranked fourth in the Best Countries rankings, a position which is based on the perception of business leaders and general citizens around the world of strong international alliances, cultural influences, entrepreneurship and providing easy access to capital.
These attributes are all highly important to Brand Britain and while they have served our creative industries well, we seem to fall down at turning world-class inventions into big global businesses of the size of Apple, Facebook or YouTube. Our biggest hi-tech company, chip maker Arm, sold out to Japan’s SoftBank back in 2016.
Truth is that we probably sell out too soon, too often. Convincing foreign partners that we’re in it for the long term might be a challenge given that history of taking the first big payday on offer.
The good news about country brands, however, is that they are increasingly fluid and they can change for the better. It took Japan 20-25 years to acquire a reputation for reliable, premium electronics and motors – our parents used to talk about ‘Japanese rubbish’ but no one does any more. Korea made the same journey in a decade and China will probably do it in about seven years.
So whatever happens with Brexit, the products and services that we export and the way in which we talk about ourselves will help change the way people think about Britain. Long-term, businesses and their executives should act as ambassadors. Our Best Countries research found that Richard Branson for example is an icon for Britain – one of the most liked global CEOs just behind Michael Dell and Jack Ma – helping to build our entrepreneurial credentials.
So at this critical time, every business trip you make and every deal you sign helps build the new post-Brexit country brand. Right now, Brits abroad are carrying a (mostly) helpful brand in their baggage with them.
To make sure that continues and evolves, demonstrating a creative approach and an entrepreneurial spirit to partners and consumers will be key for all businesses.
British businesses need to embrace our position as a leader on the global stage in much the same way that Chinese businesses have responded to President Xi Jinping’s clarion call for a new era of globalisation. Without continual refinement and demonstration of positive imagery in a Brexit age we risk weakening Brand Britain just when we need it to be at its strongest.
Strong and valuable brands driving British businesses will help to define brand Britain in the long run. This is too important to leave to politics.
David Roth is Chairman of WPP’s BAV Group and Best Countries rankings.
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