British branding in identity crisis

Not for the first time this year Britain as a branding proposition is coming in for a drubbing. This time, the catalyst is British Steel’s proposed &£695m takeover, oops merger, with Dutch metals producer Hoogovens. Despite the fact that BS is twice the size of its target, the BS management team is adamant that it will be dropping ‘British’ from the name of the newly combined company. Why?

Partly through industrial logic: the Dutch element is more important than its size implies and British Steel is determined to portray this as an alliance of equals. But there is also a niggling suggestion that being British is no longer relevant to the contemporary business world. This has certainly been the conclusion at British Aerospace, which is seeking to reposition itself in the wake of its acquisition of Marconi. The pertinent point being that the company can no longer be regarded as British, when 90 per cent of its sales are generated abroad.

Much the same can be said of a host of other erstwhile Anglo-industrial connections. British Petroleum, British Telecom, British Gas, British Airports Authority and British American Tobacco have all gone down the route of honing their identity to a snappy little acronym, in the belief that the word British brings nothing to a corporation with global pretensions. For what, it could be argued, is so marvellous about being a specifically British company? Our reputation for productive efficiency? The politically incorrect echoes of an imperial heritage? Our renowned probity and decency, reflected in recent arms-dealing scandals?

Even at the level of tourism, we seem faced with an identity crisis. For who or what does the British Tourist Authority represent in this era of regional devolution? It’s as if we have retreated to an earlier geographical definition, south of Hadrian’s Wall and east of Offa’s Dyke, easily confused by the historically unwary – and any tourists who grace our shores – with Englishness.

Yet if being British is a diminished branding property, it is by no means obsolete. Corporate activity – mergers, demergers, acquisitions and disposals – creates a natural catalyst for a company repositioning itself. But when the exercise involves such outlandish results as Invensys, Clariant, Vivendi and Novartis – a plethora of new and meaningless brand names – the case for more conservative treatment is compelling. This lesson has not been lost on BAT, which recently reverted to previous form after demerging its financial services operation. Even BA has been forced to concede the power of British sentiment by restoring the wretched Union Jack to its multicultural, ethnically diverse tail-fins.

George Pitcher, page 25


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