Even the words chosen for the Design Council debate – Does Britain Need a New Identity? – demonstrate how little the concept of identity is understood – and how easily it is confused with the superficial notion of branding.
What is really at stake is whether Britain needs a new way to visually represent its identity – which is a profoundly different question to whether we need a new identity.
Although the word identity is being freely bandied about, the substance of the discussions seems to be revolving around whether Britain needs a brand. Unlike identity, which requires congruity and integrity in its representations, any arbitrary proposition can make a brand.
So, if the idea of Britain isn’t seen as glamorous, dynamic or sexy enough, the appropriate “brand values” can simply be grafted on. Such a hyped-up, “Britain brand” will be bound to alienate many of us – making us wonder if we are actually a valued part of the selling proposition, or just embarrassing anomalies.
In a global economy, the idea of marketing our unique national characteristics and strengths is perfectly reasonable. But I doubt whether any one image could adequately represent the diverse nature of modern Britain.
But, when we peer into the mirror of these images, we need to see ourselves – not a gross caricature, tarted up, with an eye to the punters. That, fundamentally, is the distinction between visual identity – a projection with which we can identify – and branding, which just shifts boxes.