Big-Ben

Brand Brittannia

Will 2012 bring another wave of Cool Britannia?

There is a shop opening in Piccadilly Circus that will sell nothing but iconic British products. Enticed by a Union Jack- liveried Mini hanging from the ceiling, passing tourists will no doubt come in droves to the Cool Britannia shop.

It was the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band that coined the term Cool Britannia back in 1967 and it was revived in 1997 under New Labour. Now Cool Britannia is back.

With the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee set to put Great Britain in the global spotlight in 2012, VisitBritain recently launched a £100m marketing drive to build the Cool Britannia brand again.

But can Cool Britannia become a meaningful brand and is that the best way to capitalise on 2012?

The Games and Jubilee will be an advert for the UK.

One billion watched the Beijing Games. The Royal Wedding attracted the largest ever concurrent live streaming audience. The eyes and ears of the world will clearly be trained on us, but whether we can really bring the Cool Britannia brand to life depends on everything they see and hear. To test its viability it’s interesting to look at how some of the principles of commercial branding can be applied.

Brand truth

It’s said that advertising is like standing up at a wedding and tapping your champagne flute with your teaspoon, while PR is about what you say when everyone turns around. Brand, then, is all of the above plus what you’re wearing – the combination of image and reputation.

At the heart of any brand is a truth or promise, an incontrovertible aspect of the company or product that defines how people feel about it.

In 1967, Britain really was cool.

Music, fashion and film made London an international cultural powerhouse and the economy boomed.

When New Labour was born, the economy was stable, the creative industries were thriving once more, British bands dominated overseas charts again and a sense of national pride made Cool Britannia broadly credible for a time.

It’s hard to find evidence now that points to a rebirth of the brand. We are in the economic doldrums, spending on the Arts has been cut, the X-Factor is our biggest cultural export and after a summer of riots David Cameron has made ‘Broken Britain’ our moniker of choice.

Other than the apparent omnipresence of Twiggy, we couldn’t be further from 1967. Granted, there is plenty to be proud of in this country and many reasons to feel cool. But a brand that harks back to 1967, or even 1997, is surely wide of the mark right now. Cool Britannia has failed to demonstrate a brand truth.

Internal engagement
In the commercial world, brands thrive when they have the buy-in of all internal stakeholders. It’s vital that employees live the brand. In the national macrocosm, this becomes a challenge of staggering proportions requiring the engagement of the whole population. Uniting a workforce can be hard enough, uniting a nation is nigh impossible. The Cool Britannia of 1997 failed here. Many felt it was narrow, London-based and not relevant to their lives. And its political roots were divisive. The failure to achieve broad national buy-in made the brand short-lived.

The 2012 Cool Britannia has the potential to achieve much greater buy-in.

The reaction to the Royal Wedding this year demonstrated the likely levels of support for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

An ICM poll found that 63% of us think that the UK would be worse off if the Monarchy didn’t exist. Moreover, it showed that nearly seven out of 10 people think the Monarchy is “relevant” to life in Britain today, while 60% agree that it makes the country more respected around the world.

There will undoubtedly be many who see it as irrelevant and elitist, but regardless of your stance on monarchy, it’s a fact that there will be significant national support for the Diamond Jubilee.

The Games are accessible like no other event. Their values, diversity and reach give them a unique popularity. With 70,000 volunteers, 8,000 torch relay runners and 6.6 million tickets in the UK, no other event can equal its level of national participation.

However, the logistical reality means that many will feel excluded – for the 100m final the UK had 30,000 out of a possible 80,000 tickets. 1.3 million people applied. The public’s reaction to an additional £40m investment in the opening and closing ceremonies, as close as we’ll get to a full-on advert for Britain, shows just how divisive the Olympics could be.

Together 2012’s two main events provide the opportunity for the population to unite in celebration of both modernity and history, domesticity and internationality. The potential for national engagement is enormous, but it won’t be ubiquitous. It’s also important to note that the Games and the Jubilee risk being seen by a large proportion of the population as excessively London-focused.

Even if they do achieve national stature and engagement, it’s easy to see it won’t be under a Cool Britannia banner when you consider the principle of brand consistency.

Consistent identity
By far the biggest challenge facing any nation that tries to create a brand is that of consistent identity. All the best commercial brands portray a rigidly consistent image and identity, but doing so on a national scale is challenging. Capturing a single notion of what defines ‘Britishness’ or ‘cool’ is incomprehensibly complex. In a nation as diverse as ours, those notions vary in a way that can only result in a fragmented identity.

VisitBritain’s campaign, featuring a panoply of Great British legends ranging from Dev Patel, to Jamie Oliver and Judi Dench, has tried to capture the variety and diversity of our culture as its unifying theme and has done so with considerable appeal.

But highlighting Britain’s diffusion as a unifying theme is contradictory and can’t help establish a lasting brand.

It’s good advertising but not a brand-building campaign. Diversity, more than anything else, is what makes any national brand likely to fail.

Two things are clear. Firstly, the Cool Britannia brand is extremely unlikely to stick. Secondly, the concept of nation branding is flawed. But this doesn’t diminish 2012’s potential to dramatically improve international perceptions of our country. It may already be doing so. The Anholt GfK Roper Nation Brands Index puts the UK in third place this year after the US and Germany. We edged up the ranks from fourth place last year, overtaking France, a kick in the teeth for anyone who worked on the Paris 2012 bid.

But focusing purely on image won’t successfully exploit the massive opportunities we have at our disposal next year. Advertising campaigns alone can only draw attention, they have to be accompanied by integrated communications to improve overall reputation – that’s how brands are built.

Adrian Warr is an Associate Partner in Portland’s Communications team.