Frozen out of `cool' Britain

As the country takes on a new, positive image, companies must learn how to reap the benefits. Hugh Aldersey-Williams reports

REPORTS that British Airways is to backtrack on its multi-cultural new corporate identity - hotly denied both by the company and its design consultancy - nevertheless plant the suspicion that the company may not be completely at home with its radical new image.

Ironically, the cause of the difficulty may be BA's policy of continuously researching perceptions of the company. Hardly surprisingly, consumers seeing the diversity of new plane tail designs no longer regard BA as the mighty, unified company it seemed under its old livery. A mid-air U-turn is out of the question, but some minor course corrections may be necessary to make sure that the competitive advantage of a sense of scale is not entirely lost.

Whatever the background, the fact is that the pounds 60m identity continues to be debated a year after its unveiling, long after press interest in new logos and liveries normally subsides. One factor fuelling debate is that the identity serves as an ambassador for Britain's image abroad. As such, it is perhaps the most organised visual expression of Cool Britannia, a position that BA's chief executive, Bob Ayling, has endorsed by his participation in recent discussions on national "rebranding".

The controversy that continues to surround the BA identity raises the question for companies of what is in it for them from the rebranding of Britain. The Design Council's Creative Britain report, published in the spring, all but omits companies from its catalogue of ways of "promoting Britain's creative strengths".

The recent showcase, Powerhouse UK, was notable for individual products and individual designers, but again not for corporate names. It seems companies just are not cool. A few corporate representatives who appear among the gallery of creative types photographed for the cover of Creative Britain could see no further than their own noses: BA's man held up that livery. Individual designers mostly showed more imagination and less dull self-interest.

How can companies catch the wave? Dragon International, the corporate reputation consultancy, expected to be in a position to advise companies simply to ignore the phenomenon when in April it undertook research into what rebranding Britain meant to consumers. "Companies want to work out how to stay relevant. Our advice was to be: `Don't jump on the bandwagon,'" says Dragon director Dorothy MacKenzie. "We expected an incoherent response from consumers. But we were surprised at what we found."

What Dragon found was that the idea of a rebranded Britain gave people a powerful new tool with which to categorise familiar companies.

Far from meaning different things to different people, whether a company was part of a "New Britain" or not was something that emerged with remarkable consistency.

Consumers were asked to rank a list of retailers and a list of other companies. Tesco, Carphone Warehouse, Coffee Republic, Pret a Manger and the Body Shop were "definitely New Britain" retailers. Debenhams scored badly and Bhs worse. Among other companies, services did best: Virgin, First Direct and Orange scored highest, with BA, BT and the BBC following in the second-placed group.

The results will delight some companies and dismay others. Some brands are getting over a cool message without even realising it, or for no obvious reason. Cadbury's, for example, was thought "quite New Britain" along with BA. For manufacturers, unfairly, to appear cool is seemingly an impossibility. Hoover and Rover scored very low. Dyson Appliances, the bagless vacuum cleaner maker, was the only manufacturing company among those listed that consumers thought "definitely New Britain".

Can these findings be used predictively rather than merely as a discriminator between known quantities? Should companies attempt to move themselves up the "New Britain" scale?

Not if it is simply a cynical calculation, warns Ms MacKenzie. The real challenge for companies is to incorporate the new national mood in their behaviour toward customers.

"After years of sitting in research groups with people being negative, it was a surprise to find people saying: `I like living in Britain.' It was a pervasive feeling. Now, can you encourage that general feeling of positiveness at the corporate level, the idea that you can be like that in the company too?"

Ordering staff to feel positive, of course, is doomed to failure. But companies can begin to increase their potential "cool" rating in a number of ways. Honesty and openness are respected, even if it means owning up to some failings. Above all, marketing people need to absorb influences from the broader culture, rather than just picking up the stylistic tics of the latest Hollywood blockbuster for their next promotion. Corporate marketing directors and design managers may not be that cool on a scale that has Jarvis Cocker and Damien Hirst at the top end. But it is surely part of their role to apprise their leaders of the broad cultural trend - after all, nobody else is going to do it.

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