Dreadful news: marketing is the new sociology. Just as the bogus science infiltrated its half-notions and jargon- wrapped commonplaces into the thought and language of ignorant people – for instance, role model, bonding and culture, as in dependency culture, yob culture and litigation culture – so marketing has given the world the concept of branding.
And the world has seized it, misunderstood it and misapplied it. The result is at best laughable, at worst vulgar and destructive. In the mind of anyone eager to promote or sell just about anything, branding is at once talisman and lifebelt. To these self-styled marketers there is nothing to distinguish a fast-moving consumer good from the slow-moving evolution of an entire nation: both can with equal ease be labelled, wrapped in a slogan, and promoted. That this is plain nonsense is no obstacle to the perpetuation of the myth. After all, sociology, though worthless, is still with us, still anatomising the trite and the self-evident, still pronouncing it profound.
Marketing first became aware that its clothing was being stolen with the creation of New Labour. The experiment appeared to work and, once in office, the Blair administration quickly sought to repeat the miracle. Henceforth Britain was the Young Country, to be tricked out in whatever gloss the Blairites chose and presented as something new, dynamic, exciting, and, of course, improved. No matter that Britain remained an old country, uneasy at being highlighted and lip-glossed at its time of life.
Lord Saatchi got it right when he observed that it was a misnomer to use the term brand to describe a political party. “Brand is a term of business, but business and politics don’t mix… a brand… exists with physical properties; whereas a party is either an ism – a belief in itself – or it is nothing.”
But what of branding a whole country? Britain exists with physical properties – fields, hills, mountains, lakes, cottages, museums, monuments – as well as intangible properties – history, tradition, values, customs – but it is nevertheless demeaning to try to wrap up this complex mosaic in something called a brand. Blair tried it for reasons of self-aggrandisement – L’Etat c’est moi – but the attempt is more commonly made because of the curse of tourism.
Even now, the British Tourist Authority, a body second only to the Health Education Authority in terms of the harm it does, is “reviewing its entire marketing and communications strategy”, from which agglomeration of buzzwords it may be deduced that something awful is afoot. And last month, the English Tourism Council, an organisation that should be bound tightly in the union flag, towed across this demi-paradise and sunk without trace in the silver sea, published A Tourism Brand for England, a rich compendium of cliché and platitude topped with banality, the whole wretched work summed up in the observation that – hold on to your hat – “we are a land of contrasts”.
But England is no more a brand than air is a brand, or Planet Earth is a brand. To pretend that it is reduces the complexity of nationhood and of a people to something cheap and trite. The charlatans at the ETC would be better employed leading donkeys – or being led by them – up and down the beach at Blackpool
They seem unaware that branding comes after marketing, that is after the process of finding what the market wants before setting about satisfying that demand. What evidence is there of a popular clamour for Shakespeare Country, Robin Hood Country, Bronte Country, Captain Cook Country and, dear God, Last of the Summer Wine country? All these created by the numbed brains of people who, as marketers, would make half-competent bottle washers. The only recent example we have of public reaction to this facile labelling was the suggestion that Northamptonshire should be called Diana Country. It was greeted with a nationwide groan and scoffed out of existence. Would that the good people of
Warwickshire had spoken before the placard Shakespeare was hung about their necks.
But if branding a country is offensive, how much more so is the purpose behind it: the unceasing drive to make sure that every part of this country is made accessible to tourism; that every place is visited, gawped at, trampled over, and defiled. The local inhabitants don’t want it, and even when they make money from it, they resent it. Hence the notice at the fun seaside resort of Margate, “No sandcastles, no digging holes, no ball games, no alcohol, no picnics”.
It is as well to remember that the first modern use of the word branding described the process of establishing ownership of cattle by burning symbols into their hide. English law embodies the notion of proportionality – that the punishment should fit the crime – and so the members of the BTA and the ETC should bare their buttocks, grit their teeth and prepare to smell the sweet scent of their own searing flesh.