MARKETING FOCUS: How Britain can still get it right

Despite decades of economic decline, all is not lost for UK business. Innovation combined with leadership vision is needed, argues Andrew Seth

Despite decades of economic decline, all is not lost for UK business.

Innovation combined with leadership vision is needed, argues Andrew Seth

Over the next few weeks, Andrew Seth will be contributing to Marketing

on how to rekindle the competitive spirit of UK business, the kind of

positive approach which is desperately needed if brands are to succeed

Ours was the first industrial revolution. In the nineteenth century we

were the workshop of the world, dwarfing France, Germany, Russia and

dominating world manufacture. Our economic prowess helped put us on the

winning side in two world wars.

The perceptions of success were all around as 1945 new Labour was swept

on to power vowing to build New Jerusalem, with ‘the 1945-style proceeds

of victory’.

Eh? The country, Keynes pointed out, was bankrupt.

We needed an industrial Dunkirk and the boats never set sail. General

Marshall’s American money saved our bacon: but we used the cash not, as

our German and French neighbours, to refit an exhausted industrial base,

but on housing, a uniquely impressive welfare state, and - unforgivably

- to maintain a redundant imperial presence

End of empire

Nobody worried, least of all the thinking middle classes. They had never

liked making money from trade. Land, the law or foreign service were

respectable avenues. Competition was repugnant - didn’t we have an

empire and allies? Hadn’t we just fought virtually alone to protect the

free world - were these people now to start competing with us? It wasn’t


Recognition dawned. A seminal work arrived: Le Defi Americain written

not by a Britisher but a Frenchman. A macabre picture of a Europe

overrun with Chevrolets, Coca Cola and Xerox copiers. Sixties optimists

were confident it would never happen, believing our cultures to be too

iconoclastic and discerning to buckle to the American juggernaut. They

were partly right.

What’s new? Forty years on discussions are better informed. There is

concern about our position (18th) in the table (WEF, September 1995: see

panel opposite), though we contend the criteria are spurious.

We slipped several places this year, ironically as the DTI

competitiveness initiative rumbled into top gear, but the casual visitor

to the British pub or restaurant is pressed to detect the remotest

suggestion of a fundamental national problem.

Thirty years observing, from parts of the world where they seem to have

got more things right, has given me one message - ‘physician heal

thyself’. To keep it simple, the blessed Margaret was right, government

can’t do it.

Businesses must lead long-term cultural change. They will instil a new

attitude to people, their prime weapon a pre-emptive strike on life-long

learning - by, with and for the people.

The way of the Samurai

We don’t lack incentives. Stark role models in the global village stare

us in the face. Le Defi Americain has given way to the Samurai, or

Eastern menace. Here the gap between us and them, in outlook, attitudes,

process and performance is unmistakable. To match these standards, we

need nothing less than revolution.

The revolution must be business-led and committed to long-term consumer

marketing focus to give it the best chance of success.

This is big ‘M’ marketing : not a single business function, but

Drucker’s definition: ‘the whole business of business’, or what Tom

Peters called marketising.

Why marketing? First, it’s relevant - we want consumers to lead change.

Second, it accords with the free-market ethic. Finally, it’s an area

where Britain and the West have experience of being first and doing


And, if marketing is to drive change, it is brands that will lead the

charge - because the brand is a uniquely broad, flexible and strategic

weapon. It has obvious physical presence but it can be conceptual -

about relationships, feelings, experiences, places.

Consumers want the vitality and challenge of brands in their lives. The

brand provides the vehicle to drive genuine business initiatives. It

requires powerful innovation to differentiate it from competition.

Once again, it’s an area where British skills, in this case

communication skills, can lead.

Once the business elevates the brand to long-term importance, it’s

axiomatic the whole business then owns the brand, and its aspirations -

Drucker’s marketing pre-eminence - becomes a reality. Brand

differentiation, the search for significant advantage, will be the total

business driver, as it always has been in the best run enterprises.

Our Lever was like this 15 years ago. Honda was like it when it

developed the Honda City. The brand, owned by real practitioners,

becomes the demonstration of corporate intent.

The revolution won’t just happen because it should. It places enormous

demands on us. Marketing talks about adding value and doesn’t do it.

Expertise is presumed, but companies allow leading edge marketing

philosophies to wither as they succumb to the bleak wind of cost


Information as a strategic ally

We will need, with strategic intent, to use information as marketing’s

constant ally, and treat new communication opportunities (direct

marketing, the brand/customer category alliance, interactivity) as core

competitive advantage, not dilettante alternatives to mainstream

broadscale advertising.

Innovation needs a root and branch overhaul, with proper priority and

recognition attached. R&D must play the guiding role. It’s unthinkable

to fight a world-class innovation contest without it. And, though

business must lead, we must concede that we need a thought-out strategic

national consensus on priorities.

This time, unlike previous occasions, it will be important for UK PLC to

be counter cyclical to competition, to back present and future winners -

for example sports motor engineering, theatre and cinema, key leisure

industries - to choose our own strategy, rather than match a world

outlook and practice.

Creating consensus that builds advantage will test our appraisal and

selection process to its roots.

Ultimately, there is a single, abiding message. It is that people and

their willingness to engage in committed personal and team-learning

initiatives make the difference.

The business-school revolution, which has swept the country since the

80s, helps. Getting the right vision, responsibilities, and linkages in

companies needs real leadership.

But making the key cultural change - the move to knowledge-based teams,

where tacit as well as explicit learning is valued for what it is,

namely the root of all advantage - is today’s job for each and every one

of us.


The world competitiveness scoreboard


 1    USA                       25    Iceland

 2    Singapore                 26    Thailand

 3    Hong Kong                 27    Egypt

 4    Japan                     28    Spain

 5    Switzerland               29    Argentina

 6    Germany                   30    Italy

 7    Netherlands               31    Portugal

 8    New Zealand               32    Peru

 9    Denmark                   33    Indonesia

10    Norway                    34    China

11    Taiwan                    35    Philippines

12    Canada                    36    Colombia

13    Austria                   37    Brazil

14    Australia                 38    Czech Republic

15    Sweden                    39    India

16    Finland                   40    Turkey

17    France                    41    Jordan

18    United Kingdom            42    South Africa

19    Belgium/Lux.              43    Greece

20    Chile                     44    Mexico

21    Malaysia                  45    Poland

22    Ireland                   46    Hungary

23    Israel                    47    Venezuela

24    Korea                     48    Russia



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