Is this really the season finale of Great Britain?

The short answer is no. But reviving 'Brand Britain' will require plenty of imagination and hard work

Workers raise a British Union flag on Parliament Square near the Palace of Westminster in London on Monday. Bloomberg
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A week is a long time in politics, goes the adage. And we’ve certainly been feeling every minute of those long weeks in the UK during the recent tumultuous political events.

“My son has lived through four chancellors, three home secretaries, two prime ministers and two monarchs. He’s four months old,” tweeted Alan McGuinness, an assistant editor at Sky News. The tweet was quickly out of date, underscoring that within a week the count had increased to three prime ministers.

While the UK has proved that a week certainly is a long time in politics, perhaps a greater truth is that a year is a short time in country branding. As part of Brexit, the UK announced itself as moving towards a "Global Britain" with the aspiration and determination to change its position and perception by the world, and therefore its trading relationships. Shifting a brand of any size is no small task, let alone for a nation to do so.

It doesn’t help when social media is flooded with memes, as people use humour and satire to make sense of events. “One bottle lasts longer than three Conservative leaders,” posted well-known brand Fairy Liquid. Supermarket Aldi tweeted "what a great day to be a lettuce", in reference to the live webcast of a lettuce to see if it would last longer than Liz Truss’s term as prime minister.

Some even have been asking whether this is the season finale of Great Britain. I don’t think so. Brand Britain has the chance to re-invent itself on the global stage hand-in-hand with a domestic re-invention, but it will mean understanding and shifting its brand for a changing modern world.

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Shifting a brand of any size is no small task, let alone for a nation to do so

This month, the company that produces the world’s largest study of brands released its annual "Best Countries" report. The research is conducted by Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), a brand consultancy within WPP, the world’s biggest advertising agency, sampling 17,000 respondents across 85 nations. The questionnaire is co-designed with Wharton Business School, which is part of the University of Pennsylvania. Why should businesses and countries care about how they rank in the world and what factors contribute to their ranking? Simple: there is a close relationship between how people feel about a country, and their attitudes towards the brands they associate with that country. Strong countries fuel strong brands, and vice versa. Ultimately, that affects international trade, global influence and power.

Since 2016, when the study took its current format, the UK has fallen from in its global rank from third to eighth, where it has settled since last year. The optimists will say there is everything to play for – and there is. But pragmatism is also required along with hard work to build a Brand Britain that is fit for a changing world.

The study highlighted three big global shifts in how people around the world perceive countries. For the UK, considering how to mitigate recent events and build its long-term brand, they are particularly pertinent.

The first is the growing importance of soft power, because soft power drives gross domestic product. The study measured "quality of life", which is a proxy of sorts for soft power, and this is now the number one driver for a country’s ranking in 2022 – up from third place in 2021. By contrast, classic power – factors such as military prowess and traditional financial institutions – has fallen to ninth place.

Quality of life includes dimensions such family life, affordability, income equality and the health and education systems. It also includes political and economic stability, so it remains to be seen whether recent events will show up in next year’s ranking.

For the UK, classic power ranks higher, and while there is some upward movement in perceptions of quality of life, the reality is that to build Brand Britain, far more will need to be done on the aforementioned attributes.

Studio artists retouch wax work models of senior members of the British royal family at Madame Tussauds in London in May. Reuters

Then there’s the role of social purpose in defining a country’s success, also an increasingly important driver of GDP, up from fifth to fourth with an absolute increase of 10 per cent, more than any other driver. Social purpose includes care about the environment, various rights and political fairness issues such as human rights, racial and gender equality, religious freedom, animal rights and social justice, among others. While the UK’s score is slowly rising on social purpose, the caution is that it isn't keeping pace with the rising significance of this factor and is starting to lag behind.

At the sharp edge of change, particularly with recent events, the UK needs to think carefully and strategically about the third big shift: the growing impact of cultural influence. This is the number one driver not only for tourism but also business investment decisions. In fact, 85 per cent of business consideration can be explained by cultural influence.

Currently, the UK does rank well on cultural influence. But there should be intense nervousness over the fact that it is falling in relation to the category’s increased significance for overall country ranking.

It might be fair to say that the UK has taken its position as a global brand somewhat for granted, relying on its heritage from the days of the British Empire. That is not to have an opinion on the merits or otherwise of the country’s history but simply to draw a line to several of the sources of its power, influence and strength. But the country is changing, and more notably, so is the world and how it assesses what is "best".

While there’s every cause to be optimistic about Brand Britain, there is a need to deal with the challenges to build the country’s brand for this new and changing world.

Published: October 28, 2022, 9:00 AM
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