Theresa May is about to be crowned the UK’s undisputed brand guardian. A job even Andy Murray apparently wouldn’t be interested in. One can understand his reaction. We are suffering a severe loss of self-belief here at home and garner a mixture of sympathy and derision abroad. Can Theresa May rebuild confidence in brand UK?
Reports of our American compatriots offering heartfelt condolences have reached our shores. Many of our cosmopolitan cities are a sea of hand-wringing and angst. Some of our previously warm European detente has begun to sour. There is little doubt that a monumental task of repairing Britain and preparing for Brexit lies ahead.
Over the coming weeks and months, there will be no shortage of well-meaning advice: how and when to activate Article 50; how to start the healing process after months of divisive campaigning; how to unite a deeply fractured conservative party. I will not be so presumptuous to add my voice to the growing disquiet. Instead, I would like to address a less obvious but equally critical challenge. How does Theresa May repair and re-launch Brand Britain? Can May create a future blueprint for nurturing our brand equity and restore Britain’s status as an envied geopolitical player?
My starting point would be to understand the key attributes that people recognise as belonging to brand Britain. Even without embarking on such an exercise, it would be safe to assume the following might apply: our famed tolerance for diversity; our examples of creative spark that have lead to outstanding innovations; our national sense of history and tradition; our belief in fair play no matter what; our love of the underdog; our sense of justice; our scientific and technological prowess; our financial services dominance on the world stage. However, I wonder how many of these have remained intact after two months of vicious EU campaigning and political infighting, all held in the glare of the media spotlight. The smart money would be on fair-play; our sense of justice and our tolerance of diversity having suffered a severe setback.
Following on from such a review I would look to gain insight into how consumers both here and abroad see Britain’s embattled brand image. Brand agencies, especially those within fast moving consumer goods, often resort to the use of metaphors. Customers can sometimes find it hard to articulate what they think and feel about a brand. Cars brands have been a staple favourite. Pre-Brexit Britain could be likened to a new Mini: small, whizzy, punching above its weight and with a unique charm that derives from its historical roots. Today, however, we are more likely to be compared to car brands that were once great but are now the butt of ridicule. These unfortunate car brands just like brand Britain will have committed a series of self-inflicted harms. This may have involved the sanctioning of a series of misguided marketing strategies involving performance claims. Alternatively, high profile product recalls may have been compounded by inappropriate PR responses. By now this should all seem depressingly familiar.
There is, however, an upside to undertaking such an exercise. Taking an unflinching reality check is often a cathartic exercise. A chance to recognise the failings in the brand; the areas where it has strayed from consumer expectation; the baggage and behaviours it must leave behind; and the blueprint it must follow if it is to regain the trust and affection of its consumers. Brand Britain has such a long journey ahead of it. Like all journeys, its first steps will be in the dark with its brand guardians, the newly appointed Tory cabinet hoping that each decision and shift of direction is the right one.
Just like strategic brand guardianship, the successful rebuilding of brand Britain will have little to do with rhetoric, gut instinct and dogma. Listening to the electorate, extensive and meticulous planning and demonstrating an understanding of what is takes to win back trust is what is required. Deeds will be more important than words. Those at the helm must be seen to lead by example.
Theresa May and her future cabinet face a significant challenge. The country is holding its collective breath. Let’s hope we have learned from the painful lessons of the past few months. We are likely only to have one real chance to salvage and reinvent brand Britain.