The Week We Broke Brand Britain

05/07/2016 12:22 | Updated 05 July 2016

In 2012 the British Government launched the GREAT Britain brand campaign. It was intended to promote Britain as the ideal place to invest in, trade with and visit. The brand was designed to showcase the very best of what we have to offer the world. It's far from subtle. The Union Jack features prominently, as do famous British landmarks and cultural icons, from Paddington Bear to James Bond (which seems ironic, since the Bear is an illegal immigrant and Bond is paid to kill foreign people). For added authenticity, the brand adopted the classically British approach to communicating with foreign nationals: insist on speaking English, only slower and louder. So every piece of brand communication appears in the blockiest of block capitals:


... And so on and so forth. We're so GREAT that our headlines don't even need to make sense. When David Cameron launched the brand at the New York Stock Exchange, its irony wasn't lost on Stryker McGuire, the journalist credited with coining the term "Cool Britannia" fifteen years previously. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he pointed out that, for Cameron, "it is an unfortunate duplicity to talk about broken Britain at home and then talk about Great Britain abroad." He also pointed out that since the financial crisis, Britain had faced an identity crisis over "what it means to be British in the world".

I've worked on a fair number of British brands over the years - brands like Barclaycard, M&S and Church's Shoes - and inevitably been drawn into this question of identity: what is the defining characteristic of Britishness?

What is the virtue we possess above all other nations?

The success of the London 2012 Olympics only intensified our desire to define the exceptional quality that puts the "Great" into "Great Britain". For four weeks we managed to bring out the best in ourselves. We welcomed the world with open arms. We were nice to strangers. Public transport actually worked. The sun shone. We put on a jolly party. We won a decent haul of medals. And it all went to our heads.

In the run up to the Scottish Referendum in 2014, The Guardian surveyed its readership to understand how it understood Britishness. The paper's website features some of the most notable themes: "It's an inclusive term"; "British shouldn't mean just English"; "You can be proud to be British without being right wing"; "Britishness means tolerance". In the context of the recent Brexit vote these themes seem unbelievably naïve. It's difficult to find much evidence of inclusivity and tolerance in last week's result; Britain's new values seem to be an unpalatable cocktail of pomp, circumstance and petty-mindedness.

But the "Great" in "Great Britain" was never intended as a value judgment. It just indicates that geographically England, Scotland and Wales form the largest part of the British Isles. "Cool Britannia" had a whiff of irony about it; GREAT Britain is an irony-free zone. Worse than this, it's a perversion of what "Great Britain" really means and a poor solution for the issues we claim to care about so much. The biggest challenges we will face over the coming decades - climate change, resource scarcity, food security, sustainable economic growth, social inclusion - are not challenges we can solve alone. The only long-term answer to a refugee crisis is peace. The only permanent fix for poverty is prosperity. The antidotes to cultural and racial tension are dialogue and respect, not fear and resentment. So let's drop the bullshit about Britain being GREAT. Let's act with a little more humility.

In a single week we've travelled the short distance from "GREAT Britain" to "Little England". If we pull up our socks, we may just be able to travel back again. We still have something to offer the world: the originality of the V&A; the charm of Mini; the ingenuity of Dyson; the grace and balance of an Aston Martin; the eccentricity of Paul Smith; the nonconformity of Vivienne Westwood; perhaps even the simple happiness of a Hula Hoop. But let's not pretend that these qualities can't be found elsewhere. We don't have a God-given right to command the world's admiration, but if we can overcome our sense of entitlement then we should be able to earn its affection. It may not be the most spectacular virtue on the planet, but we're still a largely polite nation: we're the ones who apologise when other people step on our feet. The only thing we can say for sure about the next few years is that they will be fraught with uncertainty - not just for ourselves, but for every nation with which we transact. When it comes to rebuilding our national brand, we may find that a little politeness goes a long way.