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Cameron, Miliband and the destruction of Brand Britannia

January 24, 2013
Image of England's Glory Matchbox

England’s Glory? Even the matches which celebrated the power of HMS Devastation and the British fleet are now made by the Swedish Match Company

Yesterday’s multi-readable announcement from UK prime minister David Cameron about the UK’s role in Europe – and the predictable vacuous and hand-cuffed response from opposition leader Ed Miliband – highlights in one fell swoop the dark future of Britain under a politicised elite. Control of Britain, its brand and its future is increasingly in the hands of others. This, as any brand owner will tell you, is a bad place to be.

Since the 1980s, the UK has steadily stripped itself of its best assets as industries have either been taken over, asset-stripped or simply shut down. From Terry’s chocolates to Hornby trains, the UK’s major brands are hollow: Terry’s chocolate is now made in Poland; Hornby trains are made in China; Wedgewood pottery is made in Indonesia; Airfix kits are made in France; Bryant and May matches come from Sweden; Dyson vacuum cleaners – the list goes on…

Not Made in the UK

To buy a “British” product today is to expect to see “Made Somewhere Else” on the bottom. Government doesn’t seem to want to promote indigenous manufacture either, preferring to “encourage inward investment” rather than develop indigenous talent.

So in the last few years we have seen leading defence brands such as the Harrier Jump Jet and the Nimrod MRa4 plane scrapped on the altar of cost whilst equally-costly multinational projects such as the F35 Joint Strike Fighter are maintained. Harrier makers BAE Systems itself was nearly merged with EADS, the European conglomerate on the altar of free trade and market forces.

The country appears to have lost its political will; politics has changed from vision to management, from strategy to tactics, from a journey forwards to just muddling through. Often today, British brands are not about the future but about the past, as revealed by the widely-acclaimed but rearward-looking Olympics opening ceremony.

Utilising other countries as brands

Some – particularly politicians in search of a ”sandwich” announcement of positive news amongst the bad – argue that foreign investment has changed British industry and utilises the skills of a gifted British workforce. Nissan, Honda, the BMW Mini are seen as a cases in point.  

But let us be clear, the success of these companies is not their British workforce – it is power of the brands themselves; brands built on the reputation of other countries. Japan and Germany are seen as beacons of engineering excellence. It is this which sells – British workers have been trained to be better by organisations perceived to be better.

There is little “British” in the look, substance or vision of these vehicles. Even the “Mini” is a grotesque branding conceit based on design cues – but little else – of an earlier era. Arguably, even Bentley (owned by Volkswagen) and Rolls-Royce (owned by BMW) trade on their new German owners (and increasingly comprise German components).

In some cases, foreign ownership has taken a “hands off” view and kindled the latent talent of British design and engineering excellence. We can see Tata’s ownership of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) or NSG’s (Nippon Sheet Glass) stewardship of Pilkington’s Glass as beacons of responsibility.

Yet, the opposite is also true. Indian company Venky’s catastrophic purchase and running of famous football club Blackburn Rovers highlights the ineptitude of ownership which has no perception of brand. Kraft’s shameful closure of the historic Terry’s factory in York is another example.

Problems with investment

It is argued in some circles that the way to keep brands British and to ensure the future of engineering and industrial excellence is to keep firms private and out of City hands. We don’t have to look far to see good examples of this: JCB is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of excavators and industrial vehicles and Triumph Motorcycles is now, once again, one of the leading manufacturers of motorcycles, reclaiming its slot in the hearts of enthusiasts worldwide. Both these companies design and build in Britain but have factories around the world.

However we have arrived at this state of affairs, it has left the country and its leadership hamstrung. Britain is still a wealthy country yet its wealth is increasingly driven by inward investment. We saw yesterday that the UK’s new-found defence ally France has happily volunteered to host any British company should the UK choose to leave the EU. Companies with no national links are happy to prostitute themselves in the pursuit of profit – and now the politicians suddenly wake up to the folly of their policies.

Political folly

Brand Britannia, under the leadership of politicians with limited industrial or business skills, has become a pastiche. Brand Britannia, in an environment where investors seek a quick return, has succumbed to a “message over substance” mentality. Brand Britannia has become like a Soviet-Era tower block – astonishing from a distance but not worthy of a close inspection.

For years, I have argued that the way to understand the declining power of Britain is to look at the size of the Fleet. If Britain, an island nation, cannot afford its navy then it highlights the paucity of its national vision. Today, the Royal Navy is at its smallest since the Napoleonic era with a total surface fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers. In 1980, the country had a surface fleet of 50 such vessels. The lion has no claws left.

Why this matters

Image of old England's Glory poster

England’s Glory as they used to be sold – made in Britain. Image courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library where you can also buy copies of this poster.

If we ask ourselves what does all this REALLY mean and should we care, the answer is chilling. A recent survey by KPMG on luxury brands in China – the fastest growing economy in the world – reveals how far the perception of British goods has fallen behind that of the country’s comparable rivals.

Across a range of items from cars to watches, the UK’s best-perceived products in terms of country of origin, were bags, footwear and alcohol (each polling 10% of the survey sample). In these same sectors, the UK was out-polled on footwear by Italy (27%); on bags by France (31%) and in alcohol by France (33%).  

By contrast, and to show how powerfully other countries are perceived as luxury brand generators, Switzerland scored 69% for watches (predictable) (UK=4%)  and Germany scored 57% for cars (UK=7%).

We are repeatedly told that the future of the west lies in specialisation, niche and luxury. For Brand Britannia, nothing is starker than these figures – Britain is becoming irrelevant. Before Britain seeks to punch its weight in Europe or outside, it needs to ask itself: what is my vision? Wherefore do I travel? What do I mean? Why should people believe in me and stay loyal?

Brand Britannia, this country, is no different to a brand in the shops. Its political brand managers need to wake up and smell the (Brazilian) coffee.

Image of England’s Glory poster courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library, where you can purchase copies of this wonderful poster.

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