Helen Edwards on Branding: No cheer for Brand Britain

Helen Edwards on Branding
Helen Edwards on Branding

The royal wedding will not help change perceptions of the country being a less-than-ideal destination.

Next week, about 7000 weddings will take place in Britain, but only one will occasion a mass exodus from the country. That same wedding will be the only one to divide the nation in two, with those who can't wait to stand up and cheer balanced by those who just want to throw up.

How does the royal wedding, and our reactions to it, influence perceptions of Brand Britain with people around the world? What difference will it make to their preparedness to consider the UK as a place to set up business, or just visit?

The question is actually a lot thornier than it seems, since it reignites a long-smouldering debate on whether countries can be brands in the first place. Pros and antis take extreme positions on the vexed question of nation branding, so I will answer it once and for all. Are countries brands? Yes and no.

It's a clear 'yes' when viewed from the demand side of the equation. People can form perceptions and associations of countries and file them away to be triggered when they hear that nation's name, see one of its icons, or actively consider the 'market' - as a potential tourist, for example.

What becomes evident, though, is that the concept of 'brand' is meaning-less without ownership, defined objectives and some degree of control on the supply side.

Were it not for this caveat, almost anything could be a brand. A species of fish - eels, say - can act like a brand in the minds of observers, but there is no 'eel consortium' with either objectives or means to influence people's perceptions one way or the other.

Similarly, there is no 'Brand Britain' - because there is no supply-side owner-ship, objective or control. Yes, bits of the whole have a clear commercial man-date: the tourist board VisitBritain, for example, or UKTI, with its remit to encourage inward trade investment.

When you think about it, though, these dilute entities exert the thinnest influence over the least important of branding's key elements. They are confined to the margins of commun-ications only, with the more seminal factors - product and values - completely out of their control.

Picture that constraint applying to your brand. Imagine learning from research that there are key aspects of your offer that put millions of people off, and being powerless to modify any one of them, even slightly, ever.

That's what it would be like to conduct research on 'Britain' and get back the predictable finding that it is our weather that deters people from visiting or doing business here. You can't tow these islands 20 degrees south, so you're stuck with a dodgy product.

Same with the propensity of our populace to drop litter and gather in small-town shopping centres after dark, wearing hoodies and over-consuming lager. You can't conduct a mass internal brand engagement pro-gramme to alter that product reality.

The list goes on, with your impot-ence to alter the basics continuing all the way through to promotional activity - which is what, from a market-ing perspective, the royal wedding amounts to. It is yet another 'given' you would have to make the best of.

So how will it play? It will increase unprompted awareness. It might encourage trial, unless the TV coverage takes place under sodden skies.

As a means of altering perceptions of Britain as an anachronistic, divided theme park, however, the wedding is not what you'd wish for.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

Marketing Society forum, page 24


With books, consultancies and research companies all offering a specialist point of view on nation branding, it is a lucrative area for businesses to cash in on

- The Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index measures the global image of 50 countries across six dimensions: exports, governance, culture, people, tourism and immigration/investment. This 'all-you-need-to-know' index put the US as the best overall nation brand in 2010, with Greece sliding out of the top 50 due to 'business and governance dimensions' - easy to fix with a new brand strategy then ...

- Futurebrand has its own Country Brand Index. In 2010, Canada achieved the top spot. This report offered up the view that it is handy to be: democratic, progressive, politically and economically stable and to do business in English. A future driver of brand strength is 'value systems'.

- Wally Olins is a veteran of the nation-branding world, working with Lithuania, Spain, Northern Ireland and, more recently, Poland. For the latter, he pressed 'pause' on his involvement because he felt that there were too many issues around the leadership for the tools of branding to tackle.


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