The past is another country

Time to update Britain's image by stressing our commercial and creative strengths
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The Independent Online

Britishness and busi- ness no longer seem to be words that go together very well. For a start there was BA's decision to replace the Union Jack on its tailfins with art from around the world. Then there's the fact that the airline, along with other formerly nationally owned companies such as BT, chooses to be known by its initials instead of having "British" in its name. And, as a British Council survey published last week reveals, the worldwide view of Britain among quite educated people still contains images of the Royal Family, bagpipes and the stiff upper lip.

Britishness and busi- ness no longer seem to be words that go together very well. For a start there was BA's decision to replace the Union Jack on its tailfins with art from around the world. Then there's the fact that the airline, along with other formerly nationally owned companies such as BT, chooses to be known by its initials instead of having "British" in its name. And, as a British Council survey published last week reveals, the worldwide view of Britain among quite educated people still contains images of the Royal Family, bagpipes and the stiff upper lip.

And Chris Powell, the chairman of advertising agency BMP DDB, insists the issue is still alive. It is significant enough, in fact, to be the key topic at this week's annual gathering of the UK's marketing professionals at London's Grosvenor House Hotel.

Mr Powell will be presenting research to the Marketing Society's conference aimed at supporting his contention that in an increasingly competitive world British companies need to market their strengths more effectively. He says his argument is "not about Britishness in particular". It is just that Britain needs to work hard to ensure its reputation abroad better reflects what is actually going on in the country.

"It's not about British jingoism, it's not about branding Britain, and it's certainly not about 'Cool Britannia'," he says, even though he will be joined on the podium by culture secretary Chris Smith.

Instead, the session will concentrate on mobilising the UK's marketing experts to promote an accurate picture of a modern, innovative Britain.

There are various ways of communicating this - for example, through government-backed campaigns overseas and conferences on innovation. But, says Mr Powell, companies must realise that where they come from also affects how they're perceived.

According to his report, Britain still has a traditional reputation but little or no commercial reputation. Asked by the opinion poll company Mori for an image of Britain, people overseas think of the Royal Family, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and even football, before they think of Britain's commercial achievements in such areas as pharmaceuticals, computer software and fashion.

This matters, says Mr Powell, "because it means people are less likely to buy British products, pay a premium for British products or come to work in Britain".

The report goes on to point out that other countries benefit from a strong commercial reputation that allows them to charge a premium or "punch above their weight". For example, Germany is noted for its quality cars; Switzerland for its watches, and Japan for its consumer electronics industry. If Britain also publicised its successful innovations, then "British companies would benefit, in this same way, from the resulting improved commercial reputation".

As evidence that a country can alter its perception with a concerted effort, Mr Powell describes how Ireland has marketed itself as a suitable place for inward investment by advertising the high proportion of graduates in its population. He also recounts how New Zealand has used a quality mark to market dairy products and products made from wool.

This point is picked up by Michael Grade, the former head of Channel 4 and now chairman of Pinewood Studios, who is also speaking at the conference.

He says the country's industry suffers from "the dreaded British disease" of excessive modesty. Pointing out that Britain's expertise in such areas as theatre, music, art, architecture and design makes it one of the world's leading creative centres, he asks: "But do people really know that?"

The answer, he says, is to "be a bit noisier".

Some might suggest that - at a time when globalisation appears to be an unstoppable trend - such arguments are less relevant than they were. But both Mr Grade and Mr Powell argue the contrary. "Nationality still has a role to play," says Mr Grade, while Mr Powell points to the words of Michael Porter, the renowned management guru and author of the book The Competitive Advantage of Nations: "While globalisation might appear to make nations less important, instead it seems to make them more so."

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