OPINION: MILLS ON ... NATIONAL IDENTITY

Do you know who Marcello Minale is? I’ve never met the man, but he is a design guru (and the former president of D&AD) who for the past year has sounded off at every opportunity about British Airways and its controversial tailfins.

Do you know who Marcello Minale is? I’ve never met the man, but he

is a design guru (and the former president of D&AD) who for the past

year has sounded off at every opportunity about British Airways and its

controversial tailfins.



As far as Minale was concerned, he was at one with Lady Thatcher: they

both hated the new look. Now, with the news that BA is to repaint six

tailfins in the colours of the Union Jack flag to assess customer

reaction, Marcello is exultant.



But let’s put BA’s rethink to one side for the moment. The issue at hand

is that of the role of nationality, or national origin, in

marketing.



It’s particularly topical. Two weeks ago, Caffrey’s decided to ditch its

Irish heritage (the fact that it wasn’t particularly genuine doesn’t

matter - being cod ’Oirish’ had got the brand off to a spectacular

start) which, it felt, inhibited its future growth. Similarly, Guinness,

in its quest for the global youth market, has also abandoned its Irish

heritage.



Now, back to BA. Its premise a year ago wasn’t that being British per se

was a negative; simply that a national identity was a hindrance to its

ambition to become a genuinely global brand. It was a seductive

argument: a strong national identity, while it may have many virtues,

also puts you in a strait-jacket. Think global, don’t think national.

After all, thanks to ease of travel, multinational employers and

multinational media, we’re all world citizens.



As a result, people’s roots become blurred and indistinct. Today, we

have more in common with our peers in France, Germany, Hong Kong or the

US than with citizens of the same country.



So I bought the BA line - although partly because I thought the old

flag-based tailfin livery was unspeakably dull and the new designs

suggested a more vibrant and younger brand.



Now, I’m not so sure. One reason is that there is a paradox at the heart

of this. The more we become world citizens, the more we crave the roots

and identity that nationality brings. You can see this in the Kosovo

crisis, which was triggered by nationalism. We can see this in the

devolution debate in the UK. In this context, rooting a brand in a

national identity must be a good thing, even if there is an element of

artificiality (ie Caffrey’s) about it.



Brands sell on heritage, of which nationality is a key component.

Equally, nationality brings with it certain recognisable cultural

characteristics (German engineering,Italian design, Celtic romanticism

and so on). Think of global brands such as Coke, Marlboro, BMW and the

BBC. They are all rooted in a national identity.



The irony is that because of multinational media, greater travel and so

on, these cultural characteristics are understood worldwide. Someone in

Portugal may never have been to Ireland, but I’ll bet in their minds

they have an image of ’Irishness’.



So is it possible to build a global brand today without the anchor of a

national identity? Try as I might, the best I can come up with is Adidas

- but that’s only because I’m not sure if it’s French or German.



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