Set against the current backdrop of Brexit confusion and heightened political tensions, several brands have encountered trouble while trying to define what it means to be British.
Despite denying the EU referendum result in any way influenced the tone of its ‘Together We Thrive’ campaign, HSBC was accused of harbouring anti-Brexit feeling last month with an outdoor campaign which proclaimed that the UK is ‘not an island’, but a nation of Colombian coffee drinkers who watch American movies, eat tikka masala and are “part of something far, far bigger”.
Next came British Airways’ love letter to Britain designed to celebrate its centenary year, a celeb-heavy ad featuring the likes of Gary Oldman, Anthony Joshua and Olivia Coleman. The BA campaign calmly assured viewers that Britain is a country of outward looking, progressive people who lead revolutions with modesty, charm and bucket-loads of tea.
Safe, sweet and nostalgic, the advert feels like it was intended as a confidence boost for the nation, reassuring us that we are still good people no matter what people across the rest of Europe think.
At first look you might think that Carling’s new campaign, ‘Made Local’, is just another example of a brand wading into the ‘what it means to be British’ debate. The beer giant’s first TV advert for more than two years, ‘Grain to Glass’, defies the bad news circulating about the collapse of manufacturing in Britain.
The ad opens with the words “I’ve heard that industry has died in this country hasn’t it?”, before daring the viewer to “scratch the surface” to find out the real story. It then invites us to explore the making of Carling, from barley harvested by British farmers to the brewery in Burton-on-Trent, a town synonymous with brewing for centuries.
On second look you find that the tone of the advert is actually not about patriotism or defining what it means to be British to the outside world, but rather about celebrating people making things happen in their hometown.
Two years in the making, the campaign devised by Havas London represents the evolution of the brewer’s Made Local fund. The multi-million pound fund, which first started investing in community businesses last year, has committed to invest in regional projects across the UK for the next three years.
One early recipient is Black Country Fusion FC in Wolverhampton, the subject of one the longer-form documentary-style films featured in the wider Made Local campaign. Founded in 2016 by transgender manager Skye Stewart, the football club is the first LGBT inclusive team in the West Midlands to enter a Sunday league. Based in Wednesfield, Wolverhampton, Black Country Fusion is now sponsored by Carling for the 2018/2019 football season.
Rather than being product placement heavy or shot like a glossy, stylised ad, the eight-minute film gets under the skin of the players, the manager Skye and the wider community, depicting an unvarnished portrayal of life in a British town where a love of grassroots football knots a community together. You learn, for example, that the team’s managing director Zach is a part-time stripper who loves a night out with the squad and takes offence at being called a Brummie.
The other film, entitled Noise Valley, delves into Swansea’s thriving alternative music scene dominated by bands who take a ‘DIY approach’ to gigging and self-publishing on SoundCloud. They include punk band the Low Blows, who invite the Carling crew to attend one of their gigs at no-frills local venue, Mozart’s.
What works about Carling’s attempt to scratch beneath the surface of life in local communities is that it takes the path less travelled. It is not the shiny plane filled with celebrities brimming with pride to be British, this campaign proudly shows boarded up pubs, scratty Sunday league pitches and the joy of hitting a dancefloor when there’s no one else in the club.
The stories of these local communities are worth watching because they highlight interesting things going on under the radar across the UK, which defy the gloom and, despite lacking the glamorous sheen of many campaigns, offer up an authentic sense of optimism. Carling must ensure is that it gives these films the same level of exposure as its main TV ad or viewers may fail to appreciate this is a nuanced message that has nothing to do with Brexit.