Inside Business: Britain needs a brand new image

Should our fuddy-duddy country break with the past? Hugh Aldersey- Williams investigates
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The Independent Online
Bob Ayling, the chief executive of British Airways, and Chris Haskins, the chairman of Northern Foods, are among the leaders of British business and culture who evaluated a hypothetical national brand for Britain created by Wolff Olins, the corporate identity consultants.

The others on the review panel were Paul Smith, the fashion designer at Wolff Olins; Sir Martin Jacomb, the chairman of the British Council and the Prudential; Audrey Baxter, the managing director of Baxter Foods; and Nick Shoole, the chairman of Jaguar Cars. The brand, and their comments on it, can be seen tonight on BBC2's Money Programme.

John Williamson, a principal at Wolff Olins, says a national brand can bring people's perceptions of Britain into line with a reality that is brighter than many believe.

The project hits the mood of the moment. Last year, Paul Southgate, of Wickens Tutt Southgate and Brandhouse, submitted a speculative discussion document to the Labour Party on the same issue. Apparently trivial changes already made by the party in government are moves in this direction. They include lounge suits at the Mansion House, first names in Cabinet and the restructuring of Prime Minister's Questions, which is followed for all the wrong reasons by foreign television audiences.

These exercises start from the assumption that while many companies believe that perceptions of national image affect their ability to trade, it is far from clear how the nation helps or hinders. Britain is a leader in many known but underplayed areas but, despite this, the overseas perception is of a nation living in the past. Furthermore, our low self-image makes us our own worst enemy. "In all the national surveys we did, we were the only nation to under-rate ourselves," says Mr Williamson. In short, asks Doug Hamilton, the creative director of Wolff Olins: "Why does the image lag behind the reality and what can we do about it?"

Wolff Olins's solution is to regard Britain as a typical corporate identity client in need of a brand image in order to promote exports, tourism and investment. Among its proposals are a now name: "Britain". The one word appears in bold white lettering on a new flag with a red and blue ground. A new national anthem sings more of the British landscape and less of dominion.

More modest aspects of the project were perhaps the most promising. How much better, for example, to issue a passport stamp that simply says "welcome to Britain" rather than intimidating visitors with an official crest.

But the panel remained unconvinced. In some sectors emphasising British origins might do more harm than good. "If I'm somewhere in France, I've got to have a jolly good reason to buy food from Britain," observed Mr Haskins. Other objections were on practical grounds. A corporation could control the precise appearance of its corporate identity. It was far harder for a national government to control the appearance of its brand among the companies that adopt it. Sir Martin Jacomb warned that it would also be necessary, but difficult, to restrict usage to organisations of sufficient quality not to weaken the brand.

Mr Ayling feared that a national brand could be self-defeating, damaging the image of Britain by presenting too shallow a picture. "It is very important that we do have a good sense of ourselves and that we project the best view we can," he said. "But a country isn't a brand, although the analogy is a good one, and you have to be careful about pushing it too far."