Made in Britain: Unmade by Brexit?

Leaving the EU has sparked an identity crisis, but this offers UK exporters an opportunity to refocus on how their peculiar brand of Britishness helps their cause.

by Chris West
Last Updated: 03 Jul 2018

Provenance, or the country of origin of a brand, has always been a strong selling point. French jewellery. Italian leatherwork. German engineering.

For Britain, it’s often our enviable reputation for heritage, craft, luxury and innovation.

However, Britain is in the middle of the biggest period of upheaval for several generations, with the Brexit referendum causing a major identity crisis internally and sending confused messages to buyers elsewhere.

What does this mean to brands for whom Britishness is an essential part of their brand proposition? Can they maintain relevance (and value) as perceptions change? Or is now the time to ditch the Made In Britain tag?

The good news is that Britishness still holds massive value for consumers.  Research released late last year showed that 75% of British and American consumers are more likely to buy a product that has been made in Britain. Similarly, the depreciation in the pound makes British goods appealing for buyers abroad. But in such a volatile world neither factor offers long term success on its own.  

The British brands we work with understand that slapping a Union Jack on their products isn’t enough. In a hyper-competitive world, they need a more nuanced approach to Britishness. The CMO knows they can still leverage craft, heritage, innovation and luxury, but it needs to be handled in a more sophisticated way.  

For some British brands, heritage means referencing their pioneering origins. The famous green Hunter Boot (full disclosure: we helped them with their successful relaunch five years ago), began in 1856 when rubberisation made it possible to withstand hostile climates, helping a new moneyed class of people, such as the Victorian botanists, to explore the wider world. This aspect of Britishness is still very much alive within the brand, whether helping people discover themselves at Glastonbury or face the elements in the Scottish Highlands.

Britain’s history is also steeped in liberalism, global engagement and – at least if you believe the British - decency. Mulberry has tapped into these values to great effect, updating notions of heritage while mixing high and low influences. This can be seen internally through its appointment of Spanish creative director, Johnny Coca, and externally in its collaborations with artists and tastemakers like Grayson Perry and Mercury Prize-nominated band, The Big Moon.

However, for every brand that ‘gets’ it, there are those missing the mark. Mini has resorted to a brash and gimmicky interpretation of Britishness. Have you seen how the new design of the car’s rear lights use half Union Jacks in a trite and clichéd way to leverage Britishness, yet the brand doesn’t fulfil that promise anywhere else?

More worrying to any Briton’s sense of national pride is what’s happening at BA. Its cabin crew - even in economy - used to be rightly famous for combining professionalism and friendliness. This gave you a sense that you were being hosted onboard and chimed perfectly with British ideals of universal suffrage and tolerance.

However, if you’ve read recent posts on LinkedIn, you’ll see that BA has responded to the low-cost airlines not by doubling down on service but by cutting costs. In the absence of a guiding brand vision which leverages any aspect of Britishness, you’re often greeted with fake smiles and brusqueness. Noblesse oblige, anyone?

Is Britishness bust by Brexit? Definitely not. But external factors are forcing it to be updated. And now is the time for companies, whether they’re luxury brands, or industrial corporations, to carefully audit how much of their appeal rests on their Britishness.     

There are key questions you can ask yourself to find ‘what kind of British’ you are – for instance, is your brand’s humour more Frankie Boyle or Michael McIntyre? And, having clarified the nuances, ask yourself ‘so what?’. If you’re more Michael McIntyre, are there at least five ways in which this manifests itself in the business – be it in your customer service, product offerings or hiring policy?

By identifying with precision the values that create their own, authentic definition of Britishness, brands are able to build a timeless British appeal that is relevant, modern and sophisticated – with not a flag in sight.

Chris West is founder of brand strategy consultancy Verbal Identity.

Image credit: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock


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