It was a slow afternoon at the new Department of Corporate Identity. Although the civil servants had willingly voted to move from stuffy Whitehall to a site between Oddbins and Gap in Islington's Upper Street, many of the old guard regretted the change. It was all very well for the Secretary of State for Brand Values to argue that it was essential to be conveniently situated for all the restaurants favoured by the Department's high-profile image consultant, Wally Pantone, but it just didn't feel like real government in N1. Besides, the more traditional members of staff were embarrassed by the compulsory Burberry-patterned baseball caps which carried Wally Pantone's new British identity logo, a stylised tranche of seared polenta with a sprig of roast rosmarino and a little pyramid of sun-dried tomatoes above the cringe-making strapline "Warm beer and cricket: Out! Out! Out!" Then suddenly, preceded by intoxicating vapours of Floris lavender scent, the Junior Minister for Emblematic Constructs rushed in waving situation reports, mission statements, opinion research, data capture and a Paul Smith nouva-Britmode bandana. "Bugger!" he screamed, "I've just had a meeting at Granita with Wally Pantone, David Puttnam and the Minister for Cognitive Dissonance. They've insisted on putting the new Welsh flag out to a focus group. 75 per cent of A1, B1s in Carmarthen won't accept the coypu as a mascot and there's a feeling we should reinstate the dragon, leek and daffodil. And this is just ten days before the Prime Minister has to relaunch Dyfed as The Geoffrey of Monmouth Centre and Simply Red's remix of the Mabinogion is released."
And then, when I actually read the little book BritainTM: Renewing Our Identity, the fantasy evaporated and I wanted to pick it up and throw it across the room. This arose from the Design Council's initiative on A New Brand for Britain, sent to Downing Street on election day, 1997. Rarely have I read such a specious, fatuous collection of half-truths. Sorry, let me correct that: dated half-truths. The author was Mark Leonard, a Demos intern and son of veteran Fabian writer and political consultant, Dick Leonard. Young Leonard argues well (in the same way that those people irritatingly good at debates used to at school), but both his prose and his world-view lack style. The folly of having an influential report about national identity, a matter of aesthetics, written by someone with no apparent interest in the visual, is a depressingly apt emblem of New Britain where an obsession with appearances does not entail any very precise aesthetic awareness.
Science provides marvellous metaphors of human frailty and foibles. Who does not know a sluggish individual whose intellectual limitations are not best described by saying he has Read-Only Memory (ROM)? How many once promising, but fatally stalled, careers can be described by that chilling abbreviation from aerospace, CFIT or Controlled Flight Into Terrain, the accident investigator's emotionally neutral expression for a crash that occurs when the flight crew is apparently fully alert and functioning.
But best of all is that expression from particle physics which provides a metaphor of all the spiritual conundrums, paradoxes and ironies of the modern world (not to mention the tortured question of national identity): the uncertainty principle. This was Werner Heisenberg's term for that perverse phenomenon which occurs when you attempt to investigate the precise behaviour of capricious and spritely subatomic matter. The very act of investigation alters the behaviour the investigator is seeking to understand. Merely thinking about neutrinos makes them stamp their feet and shout "Shan't! Won't." Nothing is certain.
Thus, the absurdity of rebranding Britain. The vexatious matter of national identity is a delicate and precarious mixture of shared symbols, happy accidents, evolutionary chaos, historical inheritance, genetic roulette, political interference, history of artistic whim, palaeo-anthropology, economics, the weather, geology, sun spots, Iron-Age migration patterns, religion, bus routes, taste, sex, the Gulf Stream, football results and investment decisions made in Lower Saxony and Detroit.
The essence of nationhood and its visual expression is an unknowably complicated and subtle amalgam of fact, fiction and prejudice. T.S. Eliot said that "culture" ("national identity" had not yet been invented) was everything from Early English cathedrals to boiled cabbage. He didn't know the half of it. National identity is easier to detect than define, still less to direct. At one level, it is a matter of serious scholarly speculation. A collection of essays edited by Brendan Bradshaw and Peter Roberts, British Consciousness and Identity - The Making of Britain 1533- 1707 (1998) is typical of this academic genre. The French say that we are cent ans de retard et dix ans d'avance. That summarises the oddity of the subject rather nicely.
The elements of our national identity are pleasingly contradictory. We have a brilliant reputation as technical innovators and a lamentable one as production engineers. The idiosyncratic genius of finding solutions to problems that don't exist (the hovercraft is a paradigm here) is a sacred attribute of nationhood. And so is the extraordinary skill of doing unlikely things unusually well - British India is an example. Never has an entire civilisation been better characterised than by saying that the British are an illustration of that old principle: the people who start businesses shouldn't run them.
We maintain in fastidious order some of Europe's oldest and most unworldly and irrelevant institutions, but at the same time cultivate the most energetic, irreverent, disrespectful and innovative youth culture. We support world- class research and development in truly difficult things like medicine, civil engineering, avionics and pharmaceuticals, but do not possess the means to manufacture a five-ton panel van without foreign investment. The nation that invented the television cannot make one. Despite a reputation for being resolute philistines, we excel in all creative activities, from advertising to architecture through theatre, music, art and design.
These curious bi-attitudes are all part of our national identity but, as the uncertainty principle dictates, as soon as you develop a sense of self- consciousness about so delicate, subtle and complex a network of ideas and beliefs, you distort it. If you try to interfere with national identity, it disappears. Of course, you can photograph it, but the photographic image is momentary, dead, stationary, fixed and arbitrary: national identity is more like smoke and sunbeams.
But in an age when brand values are the chief point of difference between manufactured goods, there is a well-argued, if ill-considered, case for creating a "brand for Britain". Coming from the world of Flora, Tampax, Hobnobs and Doritos, a brand is that numinous quantity which accountants in simpler, more innocent days, used to call "goodwill". A brand is goodwill with a trademark attached. Except that when we speak of trademarks we have to call them logos, a logo being a trademark that went to art school and lives in Soho or Covent Garden.
Anybody who really wants to can make a carbonated beverage with herbal extracts: but only one company can make Coca-Cola, a brand whose success is at least as much associated with its rich iconography (sustained by a $3.8bn annual marketing budget) as it is with its "delicious and refreshing" taste. The argument goes that to be modern and successful like Diet Coke, Diet Britain needs a brand. This argument ignores the self-evident truth that while delicious and refreshing, Coke is an elemental product with one dimension and one taste. Great Britain is not. It is more complicated. And if we would all welcome some distance from the quaint Ye Olde Ogilvy & Mather visual cliches which dominated the tourist perception of Britain since the 1950s, the coruscating alternative of national destiny being in the hands of spoon-faced trainee brand managers who think 1688 is a football line-up is not welcome either.
Comparisons with industry do not offer much comfort to the men from the Ministry of Emblematic Constructs. While it is inevitable that - at a time when information is the chief commodity of economic exchange - the intangibles of the "brand" become paramount, at the same time it is indisputable that in the commercial world the most successful brands are those that have evolved through history and nurture, not the ones that were produced at a "brainstorm" after lunch at The Groucho Club.
Coca-Cola, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Sony are exemplars. Coke used the copperplate signature of its original. The Ford story is similar. Sony was a glorious Japanese misunderstanding of English phonetic mixed with a valuable insight that two syllables were easier on Western ears than Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Kabushika Kaika, together with an abuse of the classic Clarendon typeface. Mercedes-Benz will never, ever change its three-pointed star. Those more recently invented brands are a sorry bunch of neophytes.
Whenever entire countries have attempted to invent or reinvent national identity, the results have tended to be sinister. The most compelling and thoroughgoing identity scheme of all was the one prepared on behalf of the volk by the National Sozialister Deutsche Arbeiter Partei and so eagerly adopted by the Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht, Gestapo, Schutzstaffel and Kriegsmarine. The Red Army was pretty sassy too, but hindered by a comparative lack of creative resources.
And equally the countries with the strongest identities are those that are least self-conscious about it: the mere suggestion of red, white and green suggests both tomato, mozzarella and basil as well as the Italian tricolore - and that's really all that needs to be said about it. Wally Pantone would have charged a few hundred thousand to attain this universal perception. No developed nation is less fussed than Italy about the maintenance of its past or present image: none has a stronger identity.
The Demos arguments in favour of renewing national identity are not all wrong: many are the familiar stuff of discourse among architects and designers, and have been for years. For instance, of course it would be a good idea if the major arrival and departure points for rail, air and sea were more attractive and better designed. The traveller's first and last encounters with British institutions are often depressing. This side of a Romanian psychiatric institution, Heathrow Airport is one of the nastiest places on earth. While it is absolutely clear what everyone wants from an airport, namely calm, clarity, quiet, comfort and an atmosphere of elegant and confident expectation appropriate to the great technological adventure of flight, what BAA plc provides is altogether different. It provides garish and clamorous factory outlets over a large and wretchedly congested and cluttered part of Middlesex. BAA plc does not see its responsibilities as being the stewardship of passengers, but as a profit funnel for shareholders. Accordingly, while there is no public space worthy of the name in the vast barbarian sprawl of Heathrow, the harassed traveller is instead given every opportunity to buy single malt whisky, cashmere socks, caviar, a Japanese camera and a dress shirt.
Yes, the deplorable state of Heathrow and Euston and Paddington and Dover and Holyhead is a big architectural and design problem which we'd be grateful if the relevant authorities remedied. That's a straightforward mater of taste and style and what the art historians used to call kunstwollen: the simple desire to make something artistic. But other parts of the Demos strategy for New Britain are less well considered and less well argued. At its worst, BritainTM reads like a transcript of an early Thatcher-period dinner party in Highgate where the guests included not only Wally Pantone, but his neighbour, the advertising guru, Bart Bogle-Hegarty the image consultant Peter Yorkie-Barr and Professor Michael Porter, visiting from Harvard Business School and working, at the time, on his toe-breaking hypnotic, The Competitive Advantage of Nations (1990).
Thus the bulk of the book is familiar, tired and inappropriate, betraying lots of unexamined borrowings, not least the irritatingly cute TM, a revealing Americanism, like so much else in the People's newly rebranded Britain. These people are in doe-like thrall to everything Stateside, from Clinton's largesse to Excalibur's information management. But their data is not up-to-date. The citation of the troubled German white goods manufacturer AEG, as an exemplary case study in the management of corporate identity, while it has some historical credentials, does not inspire confidence that the author knows what he is talking about. AEG, created by the cosmopolitan entrepreneurs Emil and Walter Rathenau, was once a worthy pioneer in the German electrical industry, but since its heavy-handed takeover by Daimler- Benz has become a demoralised element of an ungainly conglomerate. Another exhausted anecdote refers to Dixons, the garish retailer. Demos is desperately agitated that Dixons calls its own-brand consumer products by a bogus Japanese name, Matsui. Never mind that the majority of Matsui products are sourced from Asia, it would not make sense to call an electronic consumer product by anything other than a Japanese name. They have the credentials, the culture and the image capital. No one would want a video cassette recorder called a Parker-Bowles 1066AD.
These are just two examples of muddle-headed and ploddingly literal thinking about the fugitive nature of national identity. But worse than the bungled argument and the lazy citation of irrelevant and dated facts larded with half-baked rabble-rousing opinion is the pervasive aroma of something so antiquated that it's decomposing: corporatism. Hands up anyone who remembers Anthony Wedgwood Benn (whose own pioneering rebranding exercise turned himself into a pre-Blair Tony) and his MinTech of the 1960s. MinTech was a chromium-plated, 100-per-cent, hands-on, utterly committed disaster for British technology, stimulating the steady and undramatic descent of the native motor industry into a catastrophic deep stall from which it never recovered. At the same time it cancelled innovative military aerospace programmes and committed the civil aviation business to ruinous participation with the United States and, effectively, excluded the airframe and engine contractors from the dominant role they deserved in the successful European Airbus project. Demos did not create MinTech, but there is a shared taste for corporatist stratagems.
There have been very, very few successful world brands and, so far, no examples whatsoever of a successfully contrived national identity. Heathrow may be an ugly and chaotic zoo, but it is a free and vigorous one which, talking about idiosyncratic genius, actually works rather well. I'm not certain that anyone would prefer it if the Secretary of State for Brand Values had called in his Ministers for Emblematic Constructs and Cognitive Dissonance and had convened focus groups and an opinion poll, and drawn up guidelines for rebranding Britain.
The muddled Demos report was commissioned by the Design Council under the chairmanship of John Sorrell, a crafty professional designer whose own second-generation (third, if you count Lippincott & Margulies in Chicago in the 1950s) business, Newell and Sorrell, was recently sold to Interbrand plc, the consultancy that gave the world the Hobnob. Under Sorrell the Design Council has reinvented itself, going long on flashy graphics, but remaining very short indeed on serious research or intellectually respectable methodology.
Issues of identity greatly concern Sorrell, whose recent overhaul of British Airways has not been well received either inside or outside the airline. Inside, things are so bad that its implementation has been slowed and Phase II is known as "the recovery programme". Outside, it is considered a gaudy emblem of Bob Ayling's troubled regime; so much so that it has been routinely cited as a cause in scurrilous newspaper stories hinting at Ayling's termination.
The "new" British Airways corporate image is a perfect example of how misleading technical research into the intuitive area of identity can be. This research indicated that the majority of British Airways flights originated outside the UK, a trend that will increase as this global carrier takes advantage of increasing deregulation of the airline business and seeks strategic alliances with American Airlines, among others. In the icy logic of research, the figures show that 60 per cent of passengers are not British nationals, still less that they feel any bond with the British Isles. The argument therefore developed that, since British Airways is a global "brand" there is no good reason to have the Union flag, or a version of it, on the tailfin of the company's aircraft (a motif put there by San Francisco design company Landor Associates, among much controversy, in 1983). Never mind that the sight of a BA tail-fin has lifted many disconsolate spirits at crabby airports around the planet, the remorseless reductio ad absurdum of this perception would, of course, be to drop the "British" bit altogether.
They did not get that far, but they did get pretty absurd. Sorrell's team interpreted this research in an ingenious manner. Invigorated by the prospect of one of the biggest corporate identity jobs of all, they decided to express the globalised, politically correct vigour and unaligned cosmopolitanism of the airline with folk art. So, from around the world they started on a remarkable programme of commissioning and collecting vernacular art expressive of the hundreds of destinations served by BA's fleet. A Delft tile here, a Zulu shield or aboriginal bark painting there. Never mind that these colourful devices and conceits rarely fitted the trapezoid fins of Boeings, the solution was accepted as a corporate identity "that is more than a mere style, rather a communications solution with a literally inexhaustible range of applications. If British Airways has become a brand of world travel, it's not too fanciful to imagine this new identity one day appearing on more than fins and fuselages." Or so it was thought. The opposing view was that a dignified and well-known identity which had accumulated considerable respect over the years by consistent application was now dissipated in an uncoordinated jumble of meaningless primitivism and a token globalism comprehensible only to marketing and design cronies.
The problem was, while the Newell and Sorrell's rebranding of British Airways was exciting and unconventional and ignored the orthodoxies, no one had the common sense to realise that passengers, whatever passport they hold or from wheresoever they "originate", do not want airlines to be exciting, unconventional and unorthodox. At 35,000 feet, most people crave reassurance with the familiar. Never in all consumer experience have there been stronger arguments for a service provider being deeply, deeply conservative and orthodox. You want your airline to be run by a bridge-playing golfer married to a Conservative counsellor who drives a prestige estate car and has three children at good public schools. Newell and Sorrell has given the impression that British Airways, with its tasteless primitive art, is run by Stone-Age nomads.
Undeterred by the creation of a "new" British Airways that was less popular than its predecessor, Sorrell, now back in his Design Council role, was also responsible for the 1997 Annual Report which I will use as evidence of second-rate thinking and the insistent desire to put style in front of substance. The report contains no hint of a sensible operating definition of "design". The dodgy methodology is made more annoying by untested assumptions and claims. The design of the report is fussy, wasteful and positively clamours for attention with a bad-mannered noisiness. The cliches rain like friendly bombs on Slough: things are "up and running", a "leap forward" is anticipated and in the favourite trope of modernisers everywhere there is to be a "sea change" of something or other.
Under New Labour, the Department of Trade and Industry birthed Powerhouse:uk, something to do with "putting the UK's future image under the spotlight". Note that cool image thing. In an incongruous, wheezing inflatable in William Kent's stately Horseguards, a familiar selection of British industrial and commercial achievements was presented for the stimulus of visiting politicians. The egregious Dyson cleaner, chief industrial icon of New Britain, was naturally included. James Dyson is an inventor of great talent and a self-promoter of cosmic genius. The machines which carry his name are intrusive and demand attention, but soon irritate. Like New Labour's New Britain, the Dyson is a bit of a travesty, and Powerhouse:uk was an embarrassment.
The Design Council is not always light on its feet. The Annual Report announces with a revelatory air that "design is making an impact beyond industry too," I must remember that next time I buy something: it really is an amazingly fresh perception. "Branding Britain" is a misconceived notion. Even advertising professionals, who might salivate at the profitable aspects of the concept, are dubious because the idea of branding such a complex entity as a nation implies a degree of control which no one possesses. Besides, which brand manager would feel Trainspotting presented an attractive image to prospective foreign investors in youth?
"The campaign to rebrand Britain," wrote Roger Kimball, managing editor of New Criterion, "requires that the country's past be held as perpetual hostage to the propaganda commitments of the moment". As an authority on Elizabethan court ritual, Sir Roy Strong FSA knows a bit about the historical basis of Britain's brand values and its dependence on continuity. I asked him what he thought Powerhouse:uk contributed to a tradition that included Inigo Jones and Purcell. He had a simple answer. He said it was "Utterly naff, crap, junk." I imagine he thinks the same about Demos's plans to renew Britain's identity.
This is an edited extract from 'Labour Camp', by Stephen Bayley to be published today by BT Batsford (pounds 16.99).Reuse content