The value of nationalism

The Scottish independence referendum has highlighted the issue of national identity but how important is the role of heritage for brands, particularly in today’s global market? 

Scotland has been in the spotlight this week – and much of the month – in the run-up to the referendum on whether it should become independent from the UK.  

Few commentators in media, business or politics have failed to mention the theoretical effects of independence on how brands do business on both sides of the border, from higher prices and lost jobs to buoyed entrepreneurs. Yet the debates have also posed a longer-term question for marketers regardless of the result – the role of nationalism and national heritage in brand marketing.

As Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson pointed out last week, national origin is one of the oldest, and potentially most effective, foundations on which to build a brand. But as well as conferring a sense of identity, it can have the unwelcome effect of narrowing a brand’s market.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has felt that dilemma more than any other Scottish brand in the run-up to the referendum. Known as RBS since 2003, the bank resurrected its full name above the doors of Scottish branches last month in a bid to “reconnect with its heritage”, yet it confirmed it would relocate its headquarters to England in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote. It also has the conundrum of maintaining a Scottish identity while being majority-owned by UK taxpayers after receiving a government bailout during the financial crisis.

Yet the referendum result will not change the fact that Scotland is a proud nation that will continue to promote its heritage and history. Brands including Irn-Bru, Scottish Pride, Walkers shortbread and Mackie’s of Scotland are likely to continue to make the most of this too.

Irn-Bru, which is owned by AG Barr, was the official soft drink of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games this summer and has been the title sponsor of the Scottish Professional Football League for the past seven years. AG Barr head of marketing Adrian Troy says: “There is a saying that wherever a Scotsman is in the world Irn-Bru is sure to follow.

“We are always looking for new opportunities and countries to export to, and our sponsorship of the Commonwealth Games will help increase the profile of Irn-Bru across the globe.”

The brand is available in more than 45 countries throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia, and is particularly popular in Russia, but Troy claims that although it alludes to its Scottish heritage, it doesn’t overplay it. 

Value of origin

Jaguar London launch
Jaguar promotes different facets of Britishness in different parts of the world

Country of origin can add gravitas to a brand’s credibility, according to Tom Adams, global head of strategy at FutureBrand, which publishes the ‘Made In’ study looking at the strength of national origin as a branding attribute. It is compiled through a quantitative survey of over 1,000 consumers from several countries – mostly large economies – together with qualitative interviews with branding experts and focus groups.

“Country of origin is a big driver of choice,” says Adams. “It can be a competitive differentiator.”

The study finds that Germany is strongest in automotive followed by Japan, which is also top in electronic goods. France leads the way for food and drink, followed by Italy, with the UK at seventh, while the US scores highest in fashion (see below).

Most desirable national origins

By sector

Most desirable nationalities by sector

Overall ranking

Overall ranking, brand nation of origin

Adams says: “If you are going to use country of origin, make sure you also have a unique story of your own that is relevant to your consumers and your category. Take what you can of value from country of origin but don’t think of it as a positioning in its own right.”

All markets globally adhere to the Ikea concept [and] our Swedish heritage will remain important as we continue to             expand

Peter Wright, Ikea

It is not only Scottish brands that have had cause to reassess the value of national provenance. Those that convey a British identity have been forced to consider a future where the definitions of Britain and the UK are fundamentally altered.

Not much seems to have changed so far. For example, car marque Jaguar’s launch event in London for its “attainable” XE model played heavily on its British heritage. But it promotes different facets of Britishness in different parts of the world, says UK managing director Jeremy Hicks (see Q&A). This positioning could be helpful as the UK is the fifth most desirable country of origin in the automotive sector, according to FutureBrand’s data, and sixth overall.

Lamb’s Navy Rum, meanwhile, has begun the second phase of its ‘True British Character’ campaign, which identifies some of the nation’s quirkier unsung personalities. Owner Halewood International focused on the origins of Lamb’s when trying to propel it back to the front of consumers’ minds (see box below).

James Wright, international sales and marketing controller, says: “We did a lot of research into the original Lamb’s story and its founder Alfred Lamb. It’s a brand with a genuine history. There is no made-up character and people identified with that.” 

As the UK’s flag carrier, British Airways is another brand that is proud of its heritage. “It’s the core of who we are and how we present ourselves,” says global head of marketing Abi Comber. “British style is at the heart of everything we do, from the products we develop to the stitching on our seats. Being British is very aspirational at the moment, especially in places like the US and China.”

British Airways bridge

The way the brand’s heritage is portrayed in different countries differs significantly, as the airline looks to connect with different audiences.

“People see Britain and British people in different ways all over the world so we try to play to our best advantage,” says Comber. “The best example is the difference between the UK and North America. Americans like a more traditional view of Britishness and its intricacies, such as the royal family and afternoon tea, so we serve [Twinings tea and warm scones] on board and indulge in that heritage. In the UK, it’s about being modern British and playing on the fact we are a forward-looking race that is a melting pot of nationalities.”

Sweden takes eighth place overall in FutureBrand’s ranking, and Swedish homeware giant Ikea makes its national identity as much a focal point at home as it does elsewhere in the world. Known internally as the ‘Ikea concept’, it was conceived more than 70 years ago and influences the brand’s values and culture, which are based on the ideals of “togetherness, humbleness and thriftiness”, says Peter Wright, country marketing manager for UK & Ireland.

Country of origin can add gravitas to a brand’s credibility and can be a competitive differentiator, as Jaguar and Ikea have shown

“All markets globally adhere to this concept [and] our Swedish heritage will remain important as we continue to expand into new markets,” he says.

While some aspects of the brand obviously signify its national identity, such as the use of blue and yellow throughout to represent the colours of the Swedish flag, other elements are less visible.

Corporate communications manager Lewis Marshall adds: “The way we speak – being clear and honest – it is all part of the same legacy,” he adds. “This part of our identity will remain as important in the future as it was in the past.”

Borrowing culture

Red ad
Although British skincare range Ren takes its name from Swedish for ‘clean’, it makes no claim to be Scandinavian

Brands can borrow from other national cultures and still be credible, as demonstrated by British skincare brand Ren, which is named after the Swedish word for clean (see Manufactured Origins, below). Products are made in the UK and make no claims to be of Swedish origin, but co-founder Antony Buck says the Scandinavian way of life is a good fit for the brand. After the UK and US, France and Scandinavia are its biggest markets.

“When we were thinking about how to position the brand we asked women to put together mood boards of their ideal view of beauty. Instead of the polished French image of beauty, many chose images of natural, outdoorsy women with no make-up – it was all very Scandinavian,” he says.

The brand considered making other aspects more clearly Scandinavian, but since none of the ingredients are from the region it did not make sense. This was perhaps a wise choice, given the complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about beer brand Kronenbourg 1664, which is brewed in the UK by Heineken but markets itself on its French heritage. The ASA ruled that two recent campaigns were misleading for suggesting that the beer is brewed in France, before changing its decision in June to acknowledge that the brewer was referring only to the origin of the hops.

“[Swedish origin] isn’t something we push,” says Buck. “There is no overt Scandinavian link, it’s just that if you speak Swedish, you know that ren means clean.”

Buck was worried how well the brand would do in Sweden for this reason, but Ren is picking up pace across Scandinavia. It is the second-best selling skincare brand in the biggest chain of pharmacies in Norway, he says, and it has just been introduced to 800 new pharmacies in Sweden. As part of this drive Ren has launched an integrated campaign in the region developed by creative agency Lucky Generals and shot by photographer Rankin.

Predictably, the country of origin that adds the most value to brand positioning overall is the US, according to FutureBrand. The top 13 most valuable brands in the world are American, according to Millward Brown’s BrandZ report. American brands comprise 50 of the top 100, as well as two-thirds of the combined brand value.  

For Budweiser, a brand of American heritage which is now owned by Belgian-Brazilian brewer AB InBev, continuing to push its US credentials is vital. “It is about authenticity,” says Ricardo Marques, global advertising director at Budweiser. “Knowing where you come from as a brand and paying tribute to those roots.”

Budweiser festival
Budweiser’s Made in America festival was held was held simultaneously in Philadelphia and LA

He says the brand revolves around the ideals of “optimism, opportunity, can-do spirit and possibility” that embody the American attitude.

“These values are intrinsically human, so when AB InBev made Budweiser one of its flagship brands, it was clear this would be the best way to leverage our American roots,” adds Marques.

Although the brand is proud of its heritage, it chose to keep the ‘Made in America’ tagline local to the US market and use the wider ‘Made for Music’ platform elsewhere. As part of that campaign, the brand launched ‘Made Underground’, a six-part series documenting Budweiser’s hunt for street musicians around the world to form a band of buskers, which performed to more than 160,000 people at the ‘Made in America’ festival.

Global beats local

No matter how it manifests itself, national identity can be a powerful asset for businesses looking to differentiate their brand. But relying too heavily on any one aspect can be dangerous. 

Jaguar’s Hicks says: “We don’t say we’re just about being British because we’re not. We are about our heritage, our engineering and design strength and everything our cars have stood for through the ages. But you can’t do that without being authentic. If you are not authentic, people see through you straight away.”

It is perhaps for this reason that many of the biggest companies barely mention national identity in their marketing. For truly global brands, it would be impossible to convey a consistent heritage message without narrowing their market. Of the US brands heading the BrandZ list, only Marlboro is widely known for emphasising its American origins in other markets.

British style is at the heart of everything we do from the products we develop to the stitching on our seats. Being British is very aspirational at the moment

Abi Comber, British Airways

Likewise, L’Oréal Paris’s marketing strategies adapt to local markets rather than being driven by its French origins, even though FutureBrand ranks France as the most desirable country of origin for beauty brands. “At L’Oréal, each country is responsible for setting the strategy of its market,” says UK and Ireland managing director Michel Brousset, who is of Peruvian-American descent. “We believe that connecting to the local market gives us an advantage that wouldn’t be possible if the business was centralised.”

He believes it is critical to have a real understanding of the nuances in each market.

“It’s important to understand why British consumers behave in a certain way and why this market is overdeveloped in make-up and underdeveloped in skincare,” says Brousset. “I try to get an insight of who Brits really are, why they are so fascinating, interesting and quirky; why they love sports in such a way; why they are obsessed with the weather and how that all manifests in beauty and their perspective of beauty.”

L’Oréal clearly places global outlook above national identity. But those marketers choosing to do the opposite are just as likely to be putting business objectives above an emotional connection to the brand’s homeland. National origin will continue to feature in their strategies as long as it strengthens the brand without shrinking the audience.

It is for this reason that, as long as relations remain good between Scotland and the rest of the UK, brands either side of the border will have just as much reason to build on their national heritage.

True British Character

Lambs Missy Malone
Lamb’s Navy Rum’s True British Character campaign uses quirky British personalities that appeal to younger audiences

The brand Lamb’s Navy Rum had been lying relatively dormant in the UK until owner Halewood International launched the ‘True British Character’ campaign last September, the second phase of which has recently gone live. “Lamb’s was a sleeping giant,” says James Wright, international sales and marketing controller at Halewood.

“Not only did we want to bring it to the front of people’s minds, we wanted to change perceptions and make it relevant to a younger audience.”

Research found a strong appeal for history, heritage and Britishness, so the brand built content around founder Alfred Lamb. It also profiled other personalities that have ‘true British character’, like burlesque performer Missy Malone and tattoo artist Louis Molloy.

The second phase of the campaign features professional free surfer Tom Lowe and knife-maker Ben Edmonds.

“I wanted people who are specialists in their own fields but who might not yet have major audience awareness,” says Wright.

The first phase of the campaign led to 10 per cent volume growth and 14 per cent value growth during the 12 weeks to 19 April, according to CGA figures.

The ‘True British Character’ campaign is being rolled out to other markets including Germany, which surprised Wright. “Borco, Germany’s second biggest drinks distributor, has taken the brand and adopted the campaign. You wouldn’t think the market would get on board with it [because of past history] but it’s been intrigued by it,” he says.

The Australian and Canadian markets have also taken on the campaign and it is soon to launch in South Africa.

Manufactured origins

Some brands have built an identity on a country despite having no connection to it, in the hope to sway consumers’ perceptions.


Despite sounding Japanese and having a rising sun in its logo, Matsui was developed in the 1980s by Currys to take advantage of Brits’ love of Japanese technology.

Pret a Manger

Although the name means ‘ready to eat’ in French, the food chain is British. 

Häagen Dazs

The ice cream brand was founded in New York by Reuben Mattus, who supposedly chose the name to convey an aura of “old-world traditions and craftsmanship”.


The defunct British kitchen brand was censured by the ASA in 2001 for having an umlaut on the letter ‘o’, on the grounds that it misled consumers into believing it was German. The decision was reversed in 2006.

Jaguar London launch silhouette

Q&A: Jeremy Hicks

Managing director, Jaguar Land Rover UK

Marketing Week (MW): The launch campaign for the Jaguar XE plays heavily on the brand’s British heritage. How important is it for Jaguar to focus on this aspect of its identity?

Jeremy Hicks (JH): I talk a lot about the need to be authentic and that means emphasising our Britishness. I don’t want to sound jingoistic in any sense but we have a rich heritage in British design, engineering and entrepreneurial skills that we are proud of, so it is very important.

MW: How does playing on the brand’s British heritage add value to the business?

JH: During the Olympic Games, it suddenly became cool to be British again. We have seen a real resurgence in the fortunes of the British economy and [Jaguar Land Rover] is benefiting from that. There is also a real hunger for British goods abroad, which is really important for us. The Chinese market has an appetite for British luxury goods so we have seen big success in China.

MW: How does your strategy differ in other markets – is as much emphasis put on Jaguar’s British heritage outside the UK?

JH: It certainly gets played out in different ways. There is a stronger connection between the Union flag and the brand in other markets than here, for example. We wouldn’t use it in the UK as we play on the subtlety of Britishness in this market. We don’t make it overt in the same sort of way. Authenticity is the most important thing, which is why we will never over-play Britishness in the UK.