UK: Rebrand the bulldog.

UK: Rebrand the bulldog. - In the '90s, makeovers aren't just for Richard and Judy viewers, countries can have them too. The image of Britain, for one, is undergoing a subtle metamorphosis.

by Alan Mitchell.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the '90s, makeovers aren't just for Richard and Judy viewers, countries can have them too. The image of Britain, for one, is undergoing a subtle metamorphosis.

There are 3,183 registered companies which have elected to include 'Britain' or 'British' in their name. Many more - such as Rover or Rolls-Royce - will for ever have an unspoken link with Britishness. But it that a good or a bad thing for them? Many high-profile companies have already courted patriotic wrath by distancing themselves from 'Britishness'. British Telecom renamed itself BT because overseas customers' associations of 'British' with 'the past' and 'colonial' were hindering its ambitions to become a global high-tech player. And British Airways painted the tails of its planes with motifs from different cultures to emphasise its role as a 'citizen of the world' - a move which earned a severe handbagging from Lady Thatcher.

Yet, according to Demos researcher Mark Leonard, countries can overhaul their identities in the same way that companies do: just look at Australia, Spain and Ireland. Prime Minister Tony Blair obviously agrees, given his rhetoric on the subject. But, whatever its connotations, is Britishness an attribute companies should still care about? Yes, says Design Council chairman John Sorrell. 'Britain's identity is critical to competitiveness and the prosperity of our nation. It's the way that people judge whether they want to do business with us.' Sorrell points to the way that the likes of Sony, Toyota and Yamaha have transformed British consumers' perception of Japan as an industrial nation, and hopes that Millennium Products, a Government-backed initiative which aims to identify and promote 'a new wave of world-class products and services emerging from the UK', will do the same for Britain.

Unfortunately, rebranding a country like Britain is no easy task. As Leonard points out, before Britain can successfully project a new identity to the rest of the world it needs to 'reach agreement around the elements of a new ethos'. And as we lurch towards a post-Imperial, post-Thatcher and post-industrial future to embrace devolution, a possible Irish settlement, and a new relationship with Europe, it's proving difficult to find such an ethos to agree on.

The debate is also bogged down by endless confusion between the interests of Britain as a location and of British companies. Certainly, the British Government could do better in promoting Britain as a location to foreigners.

The £1 billion-plus of public money it spends each year through British embassies, the British Council, the British Tourist Authority, the DTI, and the BBC often sends conflicting messages or simply reinforces outdated stereotypes.

But with Britain now the second biggest magnet for foreign direct investment behind the US ($15 billion last year alone), it's becoming less easy to equate the fortunes of British companies with Britain itself. When a consumer buys a British-made Nissan car or Sony TV, does that reinforce the reputation of Britain or Japan? And as once-great symbols of British craftsmanship such as Rover and Rolls-Royce fall into German hands, which nation's prowess will they really be promoting a decade from now?

In fact, nowadays most international businesses are pursuing what business guru Kenichi Ohmae calls 'insiderisation'. Heinz is a good example. British consumers think it is British, even though it's American, and many others are following its example. Says David Mercer, head of design at BT, 'we want to see ourselves truly as an international company, which means operating as a German company in Germany, rather than as a British company in Germany'.

Indeed, there are some who argue that those who want to 'rebrand' Britain are themselves guilty of the very 'backward lookingness' they criticise.

Britain was invented to serve imperial purposes, declares Chris Haskins, chairman of Northern foods. 'The real question which needs to be asked today is 'if Britishness did not exist, would it need to be invented?' - to which he replies, 'probably within a generation, Britishness will cease to matter'. That's why, he contends, 'sensible companies distance themselves from British branding'.

To be sure, some British companies will continue making money out of peddling pageantry, but most are realising that attributes such as innovation, high quality, and modernity are slowly but surely losing national connotations.

Take BA. Its business is 'connecting communities across the world', notes Chris Holt, head of design management at BA and the man behind the airline's controversial re-branding exercise. 'We are an increasingly global business that happens to be based in Britain,' he says. 'We never seriously considered a name change (to drop 'British'). But Britain is a small island with relatively few people. If we want to be contemporary and modern, we have to embrace the world.'.

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