What the nation's love for the NHS can teach brands
A view from Richard Huntington

What the nation's love for the NHS can teach brands

The NHS provides a blueprint for brands seeking to become sources of cohesion, says the Saatchi & Saatchi chairman and chief strategy officer.

It’s January and that means one thing these days. The National Health Service is in crisis.

A perfect storm of seasonal pressure, changing demographics, advances in healthcare and chronic underfunding have conspired once again with predictably disastrous consequences.

And yet for all the challenges that the NHS faces, it remains an undeniably central part of our national life. No longer simply a health care provider to the people of Britain, in many ways the National Health Service defines and unites us.

It defines us because it remains one of our greatest collective endeavours, to deliver comprehensive and universal health care to everyone, free at the point of use. This alone marks the NHS and the UK apart.

And it unites us precisely because we all use the NHS, whatever our lot in life and whatever our wealth. The fact that virtually all of us were born within the NHS has a profound effect on our sense of community and mutual dependence.

The NHS transcends the healthcare category because it is a source of cohesion. In a group of nations divided like never before, the fact that we all use something, all depend on it, all care about it and therefore all seek to protect it, is a powerful force for unity.

Common experiences

Despite the nonsense about things like the colour of people’s passports, cohesion is created by common experiences, by sources of unity not symbols of it. And quite clearly brands have a powerful role in acting as sources of cohesion.

Shared use of and identification with brands of any size bonds people and expresses something of who we are. But at scale, brands used by millions of us and employing thousands of us, have a real potential to help forge greater cohesion and common purpose across our divided nations. Unifying people, rather than dividing them into fractured groups and doing something meaningful to bring people together.

The obvious candidate brands are those like the BBC, London Transport and the National Lottery.

But so too, should they chose to acknowledge their obligations are Google and Amazon, given their monopolies. The banks and building societies, that are the backbone of our personal and national economy also have a self-evident role in cohesion, as do the supermarkets that feed and clothe us. Not to mention the FMCG brands that touch all our lives from Warburtons to Pampers.  While, if the energy and railway companies spent less time at war with their customers, they too might become sources of cohesion and shared experience, beyond that of mutual frustration.

What is important is not that a brand is British or drapes itself in the flag but that it cares about and depends upon Britain.

But for this to work, brands need to move beyond bland platitudes about humanity and what end up being called "universal human truths", often the result of dreary brainstorms full of corporate wishful thinking and moist-eyed strategists. At its heart, this is about organisations and businesses rediscovering their duty to serve the UK and underpinning this with real actions, close to home.

Actions that generate greater empathy between us all. Actions that create mutual dependency. Actions that unite our local communities. And actions that build sustainable legacies.  Not because they burnish corporate reputations but because they improve the health of the nation as a whole.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we should be asking not what our society can do for our brands but what our brands should be doing for our society.

And right now, that means mending it.

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi