Out with the old

Should we discard Beefeaters and the Union Jack as symbols of Britain? As the debate hots up, Clare Dowdy looks at suggestions for the nation’s branding

A change in Government and the looming millennium has sparked furious debate on the UK’s image and how we should be portraying ourselves to the outside world.

The Design Council has launched its discussion paper New Brand for New Britain, and the British Tourist Authority is redesigning the British brand logo which appears on all products marketing the country abroad. But the most controversial navel-gazing has been spearheaded by Wolff Olins on last Sunday’s Money Programme on BBC2.

Wolff Olins set itself the task of creating a new brand image for Britain in the 21st century. The concept was sparked by the group’s study Made in UK which showed Britain’s image and reputation is damaging our ability to compete in world markets.

By treating Britain plc as a corporate client, the consultancy recreated a brainstorming session for the cameras to demonstrate how it came up with a brand personality, a new name, Britain, a marque and a string of key signals including “original”, “popular” and “welcoming”.

Wolff Olins presented its ideas to a team of industry heavyweights, any of whom it no doubt would be happy to work for: fashion designer Paul Smith, Jaguar chairman Nick Scheele, British Airways chief executive officer Bob Ayling and Northern Foods chairman Chris Haskins, among others.

These “clients” were treated to a mock presentation at Wolff Olins’ offices where they saw the brand’s application – on to the flag, stamps, team strips, and most fetchingly, Ginger Spice.

The pièce de résistance was a rendition of a new national anthem culminating in the words: “A Britain of culture, the world is our door.”

Not only entertaining and thought-provoking, the programme raised some important issues about our self-perception, and how a strong brand could help export goods and services, attract high quality inward investment and appeal to tourists.

Much of Wolff Olins’ approach is born out by the Design Council’s findings on the image of British products both here and overseas. “There is a chance in this changing political and economic scene for Britain to carve out a new identity as a creative and innovative nation,” the report reads.

“The opportunity is there to reflect on the country’s past as a trading nation and recast its image and attitudes so that it emerges in the 21st century as one of the most forward-thinking, creative and innovative of nations,” it continues.

However, it is up to business to create the right identity for Britain, the Design Council argues.

As well as such a meeting of minds, there has also been criticism from other quarters. Wolff Olins has been accused of throwing out the baby with the bath water, despite claiming that its new brand respects our heritage.

Members of the public have been on the phone to the consultancy, alarmed by what they see as the “out with the old, in with the new” approach.

And the British Tourist Authority has conducted its own research into perceptions of Britain, and its findings dispute those of Wolff Olins.

“In tourism terms, traditional images are vital in attracting visitors, but the new can sit comfortably with the old,” says BTA brand manager Gareth James. The authority’s new branding will reflect Britain as an island of contrasts.

And the BTA has been using a rectangular logo to promote the British brand for the last two years. So perhaps there really is something in it.

Whatever your personal views on the subject, Wolff Olins can be credited with highlighting an important issue. The national media has picked up the theme so, following the advice of that parody of a certain Englishness, Mrs Merton: “Let’s have a heated debate!”

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