The Union Flag is a powerful piece of design. Since its adoption in 1801, it has become associated with many aspects of Britain’s history and culture; from World War Two to the swinging sixties, Punk to Britpop, the monarchy and sporting victories. While also linked to the National Front movement and racism, it has remained popular with people of all ages and the design has proven itself to be timeless.
Approaching the end of the century, the image of the country it represents has not fared so well. According to a report published by think tank Demos in September 1997, Britain’s image abroad was that of a backward looking country. In the eyes of many consumers we produced goods of poor quality. For companies looking to invest, Britain was hostile to free trade and riddled with labour disputes. To potential tourists, it was somewhere they would encounter bad weather and shoddy bed and breakfasts.
Britain was in need of a new identity, yet this came at a time when the country was unsure where its identity lay.
British Airways and the BTA
British companies operate on a global scale but many have decided that national associations are not good for business – looking at the number of privatised companies that changed their names will tell you that. British Telecom became BT in the early nineties, although other national telecom companies such as France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom hadn’t felt the same need. British Gas (now BG) and British Steel (now Corus) are two more recent examples.
Another company finding itself in the media spotlight was British Airways. Preferring to be known as BA, it instigated a 60 million pound corporate re-branding that ditched its familiar Union Flag tail fins and replaced them with a number of multicultural designs instead. These represented the diversity of their passengers and destinations and would position the airline as “the undisputed leader in world travel”.
The scheme turned out to be a tremendous fiasco, although not because the rebranding exercise wasn’t a good idea. In fact it made BA stand out in a overcrowded market place. The identity just didn’t suit British Airways, a company whose culture didn’t match the brave, lively and multicultural liveries painted on its planes.
Dropping the flag also produced much unwanted bad press in BA’s home country, and alerted the British public to the fact that organisations had become uncomfortable with their British identities.
When the British Tourist Authority (BTA) announced that it was to rebrand itself, the media showed much interest. While their new logo didn’t abandon the Union Flag, it was surrounded by yellow and green and sat slightly off centre. It was described in the Guardian as “harmless, old-fashioned, apolitical and jolly good fun” – but would it change tourists perception of Britain?
New Labour, New Britain
Aware of Britain’s identity problem, the Design Council assembled a discussion group that included well-known names from the world of broadcasting, business, film, journalism and design (Alan Yentob, Robert Ayling, Sir David Puttnam, John Hegarty). The results were released in a discussion paper entitled New Brand for a New Britain which called for the government to position Britain “as one of the world’s most forward-thinking, innovative and creative nations”.
It was published on the day the Labour Party came into power. This was a party that had seen the benefits of its own ‘New Labour’ rebranding exercise, winning the general election with a commanding majority. If any government was going to take notice of this reports findings, it would be this one.
The Design Council commissioned Demos to produce a report on how we might rethink our nations identity. The Mark Leonard authored report Britain™: Renewing our Identity suggested that Britain’s image could be changed simply by rebranding itself.
He suggested six ‘stories’ about where the country had been and were it was going which would form an important part of the nations identity:
- Hub UK
- Britain has always been a central passageway of goods, ideas and people (Heathrow being the world’s busiest airport for international passengers), and we are in a time zone that allows us to talk to Asia in the morning and North America in in the afternoon.
- Creative Island
- From Shakespeare to Roald Dahl, Handel to the Beatles, Great Britain has been a world leader in both high art and pop culture – 20% of all music produced originates from the UK.
- United Colours of Britain
- The country is now home to people to of nearly every race and religion.
- Open for business
- 8 out of the 10 of the most profitable retailers are British.
- Britain as a silent revolutionary
- Britain is a prolific inventor of new forms of organisation and new ways of running society for example: parliaments, post offices and privatisation.
- The Nation of Fair Play
- We pride ourselves on a sense of cricket: fairness, charity, manners, support for the underdog. A new Britain could still adhere to the nation’s old values.
Leonard also suggested that Britain’s long-standing traditions were invented relatively recently – the flag, the monarchy (in its modern form), coronations etc. If this was the case, then surely newer, cooler ones could be established too.
The downfall with the report was that it failed to acknowledge that any new rebranding exercise should be based on reality. Was it okay to say “United Colours of Britain” when Britain has an unfortunate history of imperial arrogance and racism – the recent Stephen Lawrence case a recent example.
Wollf Olins, the brand-identity consultants responsible for identities such as those for BT and Orange, also joined the debate with their concept of Britain plc. They brought into the debate the idea of thinking of countries more like companies. As companies need successful brands to be able to promote their goods and compete with other businesses so do countries, be that promoting inward investment, tourism and the sale of exported goods. This is not a new idea. Spain successfully rebranded itself using Miro’s vibrant Espana painting as a national symbol that summed up the country’s positive post-franco optimism. Large cities such as New York have also undertaken similar exercises.
When a country like Britain spends 800 million pounds a year promoting itself overseas, it helps if its image is consistent with coordination between all the different organisations responsible for promoting it. Not only will this increase the country’s profile, but will inevitably create an ‘identity premium’: any company that operates from a country with a string identity will be able to charge more for their services.
What’s Being Done
With Labour in power, stars from the world of design, business and entertainment were often entertained at No. 10 and soon the idea of ‘Cool Britannia’ was alive and kicking. Whether ‘Cool Britannia’ was more for the benefit of the government than the country is debatable, but there was certainly a new sense of national optimism, helped in part by a renaissance in British film and fashion.
As a means of promoting British design, technology, and innovation around the world, the Millennium Products initiative asked British companies to demonstrate their ability to lead the world in design. Successful designs included the Eurostar train, modern-day sign posting in Birmingham and a clockwork radio. When the final set of Millennium Product products were announced in December 1999, 1012 had received this status. These are being exhibited at EXPO 2000 in Hanover and British Government buildings around the world.
Other initiatives involved the Foreign Office setting up ‘Panel 2000’: an advisory group tasked to look at how the government could co-ordinate and improve its promotion of Britain abroad and the production of a video Designers for the World that would showcase Britain’s leading designers. It also launched the award winning Planet Britain website that promoted a contemporary image of Britain to 16-25 year olds around the world.
It is still to early to tell whether this will make a difference to our image abroad, but at least there is now co-ordination in promoting the country, and design is playing an important part.