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British flag

Whisper, don’t shout

Robert Jones, visiting professor at the University of East Anglia, and a strategist at Wolff Olins, considers what ‘Britishness’ means to a brand and whether subtle messaging is more effective than patriotic posturing

How do you pin down Britishness? In Britain, we feel a complicated mixture of pride and doubt. We feel more confident about our economy after Thatcher, yet fearful that it’s too reliant on banking. Most of us are happy to watch the Jubilee, yet wary of flag-waving nationalism. A recent poll suggests that only 20% of us want to be described as British, preferring Scottish, Welsh, English or Irish.

Outside Britain, we’re still mainly known for the traditional things – heritage, royalty, fair play, ‘poshness’. There’s recognition of Britain as a place of innovation – or rather, of invention – the home of things like the World Wide Web. But below that, particularly in newer markets, are strands of negativity, the shadows of colonialism.

And Britain has always been a nation of travellers, traders, mongrels. Partly for that reason, our biggest companies don’t look very British (BHP Billiton, Royal Dutch Shell, HSBC, Vodafone). And many have tried to drop the ‘British’ over the years (remember ‘Beyond Petroleum’?).

So what should a British business do now with its UK heritage? The answer is: handle with care. Simply slapping a Union Jack all over your marketing is not enough if there is not a company behind this actually embodying what’s great about British business.

Also, it’s not wise to focus on nostalgia above all else. Look what happened to the nostalgia retailer Past Times. Relying on the past is a sign of failing confidence: as Bob Dylan says, ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’.

Most importantly as a brand, be yourself first, and British second. The critical thing at the moment – the only way to rekindle growth – is to be inventive: that is, to be innovative in a useful way. Do this, and the fact that you come from Britain will subliminally reinforce that inventiveness, as it has done for Dyson.

After all, pushing Britishness above all else is, well, just not British.

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