As the UK prepares for economic recovery from COVID and makes the best of Brexit, it is striking that there has been no talk of investing in the national brand. A post-Brexit “global Britain” will need more than rhetoric – and something more sophisticated than the nine-year-old GREAT Britain promotional campaign – to sell its products and services, develop new strategic alliances, retain its soft power, and make the nation an attractive destination.
UK governments have tended not to engage in serious branding activities. They have preferred to focus on slogans and logo-heavy campaigns that draw heavily on marketing tools such as advertising (the regular VisitBritain tourism campaigns), PR (Tony Blair’s so-called “Cool Britannia” party in the 1990s), and exhibitions (Food is GREAT at China’s 2020 International Import Expo).
At such a key moment for the country, to not attempt to build an all-encompassing national brand would be a major missed opportunity. Ending free movement of labour with the EU means having to work much harder to attract talent and investment. The extra costs and bureaucracy around exports means having to work harder to make British products competitive. Projecting a positive brand image both inside the UK and to the world will make these things easier.
Why branding matters
Research shows that when a nation has a positive brand it leads to economic power, wealth, national confidence and success. Perceptions of national characteristics or skills become associated with important industries: for example, Japan with consumer electronics, Germany with automotive engineering, and Switzerland with precision watchmaking. “Made in Japan”, “Made in Germany” and “Made in Switzerland” bring to mind high-quality and innovative products, and create a powerful country-of‐origin effect.
Brand image also contributes to, and is determined by, a country’s soft power – the ability to achieve what it wants through influence, reputation and attraction. The UK has normally wielded substantial soft power through institutions such as the BBC World Service and the British Council, as well as the international standing of UK academics and charities. The most recent Global Soft Power Index showed the UK holding its third-placed ranking, despite making a very poor job of handling coronavirus and suffering a drop in its overall score.
But there is usually a lag effect in the rankings when it comes to reputation. While the UK’s successful vaccination programmes may well benefit its reputation for competence, issues such as the reduction of foreign aid, hesitation around delivering climate change promises, and highly visible controversies around immigration and institutional racism may be storing up image problems for the future.
An action plan
The government should first establish an independent brand unit or task force to manage the UK brand permanently. A clear commitment from the top is needed to ensure everyone buys into the strategy and to prevent sub-brands, say from industry sectors, cities or devolved nations, overshadowing the UK master brand.
For instance, Switzerland takes its national brand so seriously that it is enshrined in legislation and managed by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. In the past year, it has risen three places to fifth in the Global Soft Power Index. Meanwhile South Korea, another country with rising soft power, has taken a similarly all-encompassing approach through its Presidential Brand Council.
Once the UK has set up such a unit for managing the brand, it will need to involve all sectors in developing a long-term strategy that has a clear vision, common values and differentiates the nation from rivals.
One example of a well-managed national brand is 100% Pure New Zealand, which is reinforced by policies and actions and aimed at promoting everything from tourism to exports. New Zealand even banned companies from producing and selling genetically engineered and modified foods, knowing that they would have compromised the brand.
Closer to home, the Blair government showed what is possible with Innovation UK, a branding strategy aimed at reversing the perception that the UK was not innovative. Importantly, this branding was not based on just telling the world that the UK was innovative: it focused on the emotional message that the UK had “a passion to share our ideas and breakthroughs with others in order to enrich the quality of life for all citizens of the world”. This was authenticated by many examples of UK innovations that had helped change the world in a positive way.
Everyone from government ministers to companies, universities and other research bodies worked within this branding to show that the UK was open, outward-facing, and taking a leadership role in the world. The strategy achieved tremendous gains in business relationships and international collaborations. A similar strategy today might focus on the climate emergency and Britain leading the world in a green recovery.
But more broadly, what should the British brand be based on? While the UK is well known around the world, many of the associations are rooted in the past: is it still the country of Downton Abbey, afternoon tea, bad food, colonialism and empire? The Brexit vote and subsequent negotiations have reinforced an image of the UK as insular and exceptionalist. These perceptions may be partly true, but they are not the whole story. A branding programme would manage the negative perceptions while reinforcing the positives.
These positives would include areas where the UK is strong, such as science and technology, education, culture and financial services. The strategy would emphasise the UK’s underlying values: how it wants to be thought of and talked about around the world. Decency, fairness, creativity and inclusion might be in the mix.
Fundamentally, the nation brand is one of the most important assets of any state. Managing it is challenging, but the huge benefits outweigh the difficulties. At this moment of inflection, it is time to do something about it.