2014 is already shaping up to be an interesting year for brands and their concept of Britishness. Barely a day after most of us had lugged our Christmas decorations back into the loft, a new visual identity for "Made in Britain" was revealed to great fanfare. We can expect everything from lava lamps to lambswool cardigans will soon carry a symbol inspired by the Union Flag. A fortnight later, P&O Cruises has decided to "celebrate more clearly its British credentials" by featuring the world's largest Union Flag on the bow of its flagship vessels. Two years after the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, it seems some brand owners are keen to continue waving the flag.
This feels like the 1990s all over again, except today we have a "Dave" when before we had a "Tony". But it turns out that not everybody wants to drown his brand in a sea of red, white and blue. Virgin Media has just dropped our national flag from its logo in favour of a more pared-back look. Many of the clients we work with are keen to identify a deeper sense of what it means to be British in 2014. They want to establish a definition that doesn't rely on a rose-tinted view of history. To adopt a more aspirational, progressive vision of Britain as a cosmopolitan, multicultural society.
The problem is that it's difficult to come up with an authentic definition of modern Britain without reference to the past. Our history in large part determines who we are today. It's understandable that brand owners want to define Britishness in terms that don't sound jingoistic or xenophobic. But placing too great an emphasis on Britain's multiculturalism and modernity reveals these to be too universal to apply specifically or especially to ourselves. Is Britain any more multicultural than the USA? Are we more modern than Singapore? More stylish than France? More passionate than Italy? More open-minded than Sweden? More unflappable than Japan? It's hard to argue the toss convincingly.
Perhaps it's possible to identify the characteristics that define a country through its most prominent brands. BMW, Mercedes and SAP are paragons of Germany ingenuity and efficiency. Louis Vuitton, L'Oréal and Hermès epitomise the French fascination with style and a life well lived. But Britain's most valuable brands mark us out as neither particularly stylish nor particularly ingenious. Vodafone, Tesco, BP, Standard Chartered, BT and Barclays are (mostly) solid but not particularly spectacular when compared to (for example) the USA's most valuable brands: Apple, Google, IBM, McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Our most enduring and endearing brands - The Post Office, Oxo, The BBC, John Lewis, The Times - reinforce the notion that Britain's brands are sensible, serious and sage.
Fortunately, none of this really matters.
Truly strong brands don't rely on nationality for their sense of identity. The British may be the most apologetic nation on the planet - a country that divides its time between queuing, commuting and discussing the weather - but we are also suckers for a plucky underdog. Someone willing to swim against the current. Someone with the confidence, ability and sheer bloody-mindedness to buck the trend. That's why we adore Mini for its playfulness and Paul Smith for its barminess. Neither of these brands is preoccupied with existing concepts of Britishness. Mini was resurrected by a group of Swiss designers working for BMW. Paul Smith openly draws inspiration from everywhere: he cites Chinese military uniform, Italian Advertising and French impressionism as key influences. Paradoxically, the result is often (mis)interpreted as uniquely British eclecticism. But these brands don't seek to mimic or define Britishness; if anything, they want to redefine it. They challenge our concept of nationality. They play with it. They subvert it. This is what makes them so interesting to us.