A new kind of team spirit

The fundamental problem with rebranding Britain, explains Janice Kirkpatrick, is that Britain is not a single entity, but the sum of four very different parts.

After watching the World Cup I must conclude that rebranding Britain is an impossible brief.

If Britain were a football match, it’s one that should be indefinitely postponed because it’s too bloody to watch: full of penalties, missed corners and own goals. There are four strips and several movable goal posts. The confused and unsegregated fans can’t tell who’s playing for which team. It’s impossible to win any game. The only happy participants are the organisers, the sponsors and the press. They invent the score line, profit from the work of others and tell lies in the match report.

Branding is fashionable marketing-speak for identifying and expressing the personality, ideologies and aspirations of an organisation or a product, through a graphic mark or a package. How do you “rebrand” something that wasn’t previously branded? How on earth do you begin to brand something as big, old and complicated as the UK?

I think it’s arrogant of designers to presume they can rebrand countries using the same methodologies as those applied to crisps and corporations. It is foolish to diminish the rich multiple personalities of the UK, representing them under one brand which is much less than the sum of its parts. We should learn from the Union Jack, which is no more than a misleading amalgamation of national flags, with England on top. The Union Jack should be withdrawn by the Advertising Standards Authority on grounds of cultural misrepresentation, or does it tell the truth?

So, can we, and should we, create a poly-identity – one which constantly overlaps and changes with society? Because that’s what makes this part-time team of small old countries special. Maybe we already have a solution by showing our four distinct flags representing the broad cultural groups which make up this “disunited queendom”.

You really do only have to watch the World Cup to learn about British identity – the qualifying matches teach us that the UK is made up from four countries with football teams: Scotland, England, Wales and some kind of Ireland, each with an individually stronger personality than the label Britain would have us reduce them to.

The game of rebranding Britain is played on a sloping pitch because contemporary national identities depend on media representation to project an idea of who we are to the rest of the world and, more importantly, to hold a mirror to ourselves which might reveal some truths about who we are. Media in the UK is centred, not only in England, but in parochial London. Even England is much more than London, and Scotland, Ireland and Wales are much more than England. I feel strongly that different cultural groups should be truthfully represented.

How can you begin to represent Britain tangibly? Britain isn’t even a country, it is a state of mind, an anachronism. It’s a word on the front of my passport that doesn’t even express my nationality. Britain is a place in the past or in another media dimension. A place where men wear bowler hats and stiff upper-lips. Britain exists as symbols: the bulldog or Union Jack, a Spice Girls’ track, a Carry On film. It’s a retro marketing campaign which is endlessly updated by replacing Antonioni’s Blow Up with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, The Beatles with Oasis. Let’s face it Britain simply doesn’t mean very much anymore. It could be defined as a heritage brand, rooted in an imperial past where London and the industrial cities of Manchester, Derby and Liverpool conspired with the industrial might of Glasgow in a bid to rule the world. If my memory serves me well Ireland provided cheap labour and Wales provided the fuel.

Cool Britannia acknowledges an emasculated UK, dumbed-down by American TV – culture in the name of commerce. If Britain is meant to be looking forwards to the future why does it keep reworking the past and why does it ignore all of the really interesting creativity which makes our country so innovative but which doesn’t make political careers or cash?

We are a mongrel nation and that’s why we are creative and resourceful. Mongrels are smarter and tougher than thoroughbreds and have a richer cultural melting pot of endless combinations and conflicts which yield creativity – in a way which could almost be described as “anti-creative”. We don’t need a thoroughbred brand, any more than we need a hereditary peerage.

I know designers are innovative and human. But I believe that we should stick to branding tins of beans, not countries. For me, the concept of Britain and Britannia died with the Empire. Long live England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. May we celebrate and share our rich cultural differences and never, ever play on the same team.

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