Think BR: Communicating Britishness through advertising
A view from Keith Glasspoole

Think BR: Communicating Britishness through advertising

Particularly this year, home-grown brands are emphasising their Britishness, writes Keith Glasspoole, deputy managing director, Ipsos ASI.

In this year of all years, it is perhaps sacrilegious to mangle Shakespeare, but to borrow from Twelfth Night, "Be not afraid of Britishness: some are born British, some achieve Britishness and some have Britishness thrust upon them" 

 With the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, 2012 has offered plenty of opportunities for brands to make the most of their Britishness.

For those brands not born British, it has provided plenty of temptation, either to try and achieve it, or to thrust it upon themselves.

A brand like Marks and Spencer can create a range of Union Jack-festooned packaging without a trace of dissonance, whereas other brands would have to more carefully consider whether flying the flag can work for them.

Why would a brand seek to communicate Britishness, whether real or borrowed? Typically, it will be part of a brand strategy designed to increase the resonance of brands with consumers. Resonance can be created by generating positive, distinctive and personally relevant emotional associations with brands.

Britishness provides a range of different means to generate those associations, and such resonance, if achieved, will support the equity of a brand and thereby underpin both sales in general and sales at a premium price in particular.

The key phrase in that last sentence is if achieved. Emphasis on the if. Britishness can only support brand equity to the max if it is applied in a way which is differentiating.

 This is particularly difficult to achieve in summer 2012, when it seems as if the Union Jack has been liberally plastered everywhere. What might normally be a differentiator risks becoming a 'me-too', and what might normally create stand-out risks getting lost in the clutter.

Similarly, it will only work optimally if it is applied in a way which is relevant, both to the brand itself and to the people it is targeting.

To take a very blunt example, a message about the British provenance of ingredients is likely to resonate strongly with a home audience, but be a positive turn-off to a French one… witness the hapless attempts by Apprentice contestants to sell British cheese in a French market.

Naturally, the resonance of a brand’s Britishness can be heavily influenced, for good or ill, by its marketing communications. So, how it is communicated is as important as why; how and why have advertisers sought to profit from Britishness?


Britishness of provenance

Consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from. This often relates to traceability and transparency, for example the picture of the pig farmer on your pack of sausages. In a broader British context this can go further and tap into national pride and loyalty.

The examples of Walkers and Carling could be seeking to tick both boxes - and with only the barest trace of irony, given that both brands display their British credentials under the ownership of North American multinationals (PepsiCo and Coors).

For some brands this might be a problem, but for these two it seems credible, not least because they have a history of using British, or at least English, icons in their advertising - Walkers with Gary Lineker, Carling with their Dambusters-themed ads.


Britishness of tone

Particularly for campaigns aimed at the home market, this often means humorous self-mockery. The campaign for British Airways from a few years ago featuring the US writer PJ O’Rourke built effectively on the tendency of Brits towards self-deprecation: "I guess you should be proud of that, but that wouldn’t be very British, would it?"

To many British eyes this may have resonated a little more strongly than the brand’s more recent 'To Fly, To Serve' work. However, building as it does on that other typically British tonality of the 'stiff upper lip', that may be a more appropriate application of Britishness for a global brand, in particularly one with a focus on the US market.


Britishness of heritage

 Anyone British above a certain age will be able to name the brand with which this view is associated, particularly when coupled with a lovable urchin on a delivery bike. The ad in question dates from the early 70s, and sought to imbue Hovis with a sense of heritage. 

However, as Hovis discovered in more recent years, heritage can be a double-edged sword. Twenty-five years on, Hovis had been in a two year period of decline, during which their key competitor, Warburtons, had established a 20% lead in market share.

The brand was seen as old-fashioned - increasingly lacking in relevance - and the imagery of the boy on a bike had become a millstone around the neck of the brand, cementing those fusty associations.

Hovis realised that by turning heritage into shared national heritage, the brand’s history could drive more positive emotional associations. As part of the wider trend towards caring about provenance, consumers were starting to differentiate between 'bad bread' (processed in factories), and 'good bread' (healthy, natural, baked by real bakers).

They developed a campaign showing the boy running home from the bakers through the ages, with episodes from 20th Century history playing out behind him.

Hovis had realised that the brand’s history, previously defined by old-fashioned imagery, but now defined by shared British experience, could stand for trusted baking credentials - a brand that’s "as good today as it’s always been".

The campaign helped restore resonance to the brand, with the result being 14% year on year sales growth following the introduction of the campaign.

These are just a few examples of how Britishness has been communicated in advertising. We could have used any number of others, but all would have shared the aim of trying to create stand-out and resonance through Britishness.

When considering the current crop of advertising seeking to tap into the patriotic Olympic spirit, how many of them are succeeding in this aim? Which are born British, and which are trying to thrust Britishness upon themselves?

Keith Glasspoole, deputy managing director, Ipsos ASI