First World War: a challenging anniversary for brands to mark
First World War: a challenging anniversary for brands to mark
A view from John Crowther

The First World War is no battleground for brands

Twenty-five years of Magnum, 30 years of the Diet Coke hunk, 150 years of John Lewis

Anniversaries are the gift that keeps on giving for brands and their agencies. A chance to mainline cultural memes in epic productions that bathe customers in a warm glow of affirmation.

And the anniversary doesn’t have to belong to the brand. National anniversaries can tap even richer emotional veins. Remember the deluge of Diamond Jubilee-themed communications and products in 2012?

So the centenary of the start of World War One, of Britain’s’ surprisingly principled decision to come to the defence of plucky little Belgium, should be a gift for marketers. Shouldn’t it?

The trouble is that anniversaries are built on stories. On shared cultural memories.

The narrative of World War Two is mostly positive for Britain. It’s about the heroic moment of standing alone against clear evil; the milestones of the Battle of Britain, D Day and VE Day.

But the cultural memory of World War One is very different. It’s mud and slaughter. Wilfred Owen and "Anthem For Doomed Youth". Allan Clark’s working class "Lions Led By Donkeys". Poppies and Remembrance.

There’s a rich academic debate about the necessity of the war – and of the quality of generalship -–  but culturally, 'Blackadder' nailed World War One as tragedy for good.

So is there an opportunity in the anniversary of 1914?

For the armed forces, there’s obvious relevance, but hardly positive associations.

What about opportunities for other brands in the anniversary?

Although a lot of convenience brands – like Domestos or Birdseye  – were launched later between the wars, a clutch of FMCG brands still available today were in the backpacks of every solider as they marched up to the front – Typhoo Tea and Bovril, HP Sauce and Oxo, Rose’s Lime Cordial and Camp Coffee.

Spot the common theme though? Many of those survivors from Edwardian England are struggling today to escape from the dead hand of heritage and changed habits – and those that have succeeded like Oxo –  are hardly likely to return to their past.

One exception is Cadbury. "A present to our friends at the front from the workpeople at Cadbury’s Bourneville" was the message wrapped round thousands of free chocolate bars that brought a moment of joy to the trenches.

There’s a story here that Cadbury could tell and celebrate in a way that’s still relevant to its brand values. But with Cadbury no longer a British brand, how would that play with Mondelez’s global machine?

Another might be luxury goods brands like Dunhill or Burberry – who designed the original trench coat specifically for the trenches – for whom heritage and backstory reinforces premiumness. Although Harrods probably wouldn’t want to revisit their "Welcome present for Friends at the Front" – a gift pack that included preloaded shots of cocaine, morphine and heroin…

There is one brand though that should be making the most of 1914 and the horrors that followed, and that’s the Red Cross.

Although founded much earlier, World War One saw the Red Cross respond to the industrial scale killing with industrial scale caring.

From nursing the wounded to tracing the missing, and with no national agenda, it’s probably the one brand for which the horrors that followed 1914 are a relevant and positive part of its goals today, and 1914 is an anniversary to embrace.

John Crowther is the strategy director of WCRS