Britain set to dust itself off and start all over again

Independent think tank Demos is the latest mover to join the long line of organisations seeking to brush up Britain’s image. Clare Dowdy investigates the phenomenon

This has been the year of national naval-gazing. The change of Government in May, the Design Council’s discussion paper New Brand For New Britain, the BBC’s Money Programme featuring Wolff Olins’ “Britain plc” concept, and the Princess of Wales’ death, have all focused our attention on what we are about. And the looming millennium is giving the initiative a sense of immediacy.

Most people agree that Britain’s image, both at home and overseas, needs to be reconsidered, if not restructured. The strongest argument for reviewing what we stand for is an economic one. Without a positive, forward-thinking image, the fear is that Britain will start to lose out financially to its competitors, whether as a tourist destination or in the context of business.

A strong brand, as any business knows, breeds loyalty and differentiation, and ultimately you can charge a premium – so that when the pound is strong abroad people will still want to come to Britain, explains British Tourist Authority head of brand management Gareth James.

The Demos report, released this week, urges discussion on the topic for the sake of the economy. It has calculated that 800m of public money is spent by the institutions promoting Britain abroad each year: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, the BTA and the British Council.

“Their activities are fragmented and unstrategic,” chides the report. “Often they opt for the line of least resistance, presenting Britain as a nation of heritage.”

But as author Mark Leonard writes in the report: “If the different agencies of Government and business work in tandem in projecting a positive identity, there are measurable benefits for the national economy.”

The design industry and UK agencies promoting Britain have welcomed the report Britain Renewing Our Identity, although such disparate bodies are unlikely to agree on the lengths to which any rethinking should go.

While some, particularly in the design community, welcome with open arms the idea of a modern, global, open nation, other bodies will want to cling to vestiges of the kingdom’s glorious past.

The BTA’s research found its new “Britain brand” logo and corporate identity should reflect “the old and look forward”, says the BTA’s James. “Our core values are the same as Demos’.”

And Demos’ proposals for putting together a brand watchdog seem to make sense. The report recommends the establishment of a Promoting Britain Unit, to which a bigger vision group would report. The unit would be headed by the Prime Minister.

“We have a brand which does not have a brand manager,” says Wolff Olins head of consultancy John Williamson. He recognises such an initiative must be led from the top. “Cabinet members are the only individuals who can lead it. It is a question of political will,” he explains.

Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers agrees: “We have been quietly attempting to co-ordinate things in the background in the past few years. It would be helpful to have some structure in Government.”

Any vision group should have design representation, along with individuals from business, the arts, education and Government. These people would be responsible for thrashing out the finer details of a brand image and direction for Britain.

“We would be pushing for good design representation,” confirms Summers. Williamson would like Wolff Olins to be involved. “We feel very passionately [on the subject of drawing up a brand image, but] it’s not just a project for one consultancy,” he says.

Many of the organisations already promoting Britain have been making their own changes to reflect a new brand awareness. And many of these drives would be applauded by the Demos report. The British Council is carrying out interiors revamps at several offices here and overseas (DW 29 August), fitting neatly with the report’s sentiment: “Government buildings in the UK should act as a showcase for Britain as a creative land.”

The BTA is bringing out a new “Britain brand” logo and is redesigning its own identity. The English Tourist Board has a new marque, and the Design Council is launching its Millennium Products initiative next week. All laudable in their own way, but not exactly a unified effort.

The Demos report urges a joint effort in these matters, to “help replace a ‘one-off’ culture with a more systematic approach to everything from advertising campaigns to trade shows”.

James at the BTA backs such an approach: “It’s an excellent idea to maximise consistency.” But perhaps the cliché about the gate being closed after the horse has bolted could be used to describe the timing of the report.

Before consistency can be achieved throughout the nation and the world, strong leadership of a clear brand must be in place. And first the vision group must define a brand to which the nation can relate and aspire to. “Renewing Britain’s identity… means galvanising excitement around Britain’s core values – as a democratic and free society in an interconnected world – and finding a better way of linking pride in the past with confidence in the future,” reads the report.

The Demos report puts forward six “stories” which have shaped the heritage of Britishness. These stories accommodate varying versions of what it means to be British: united colours of Britain, Britain as a silent revolutionary, the nation of fair play, and so on.

Demos warns all our intentions count for nothing unless the identity fits with the changing reality. And that is the real task for the design community and industry.

The branding of Britain: The initiatives and reviews of 1997

May Design Council launches New Brand For New Britain discussion paper

May The BBC2 Money Programme features Wolff Olins’ Britain plc concept, treating the country as a corporate client

July English Tourist Board unveils new identity by Team Saatchi and publishes an annual report by Radius Design in September (pictured)

August British Council offices around the world including London undergo a programme of refurbishment

September Demos report Britain Renewing Our Identity, funded by the Design Council, is published

September Design Council’s Millennium Products campaign is launched by the Prime Minister

22 September British Tourist Authority is to launch ‘Britain brand’ logo by Real Time Studio

29 October BTA is to launch a new corporate identity by Real Time Studio

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