Posted: March 26, 2008
I’m back in the UK for a while at the moment and my inadvertent, but perfect timing landed me right in the middle of one of my favorite debates – national branding.
I wrote a post about this about a year ago and added it to this blog in January (“Brand Britain”). I’m fascinated by the issues of large-scale brand development projects and they don’t come much larger than national branding. I’m also fascinated by the workings of government, so this is an area where I get some seriously big kicks. Of course, the participants in this debate rarely recognise the subject as “branding”. I have heard it referred to by many names this week, but that’s what it is aright and all the private sector rules apply.
The subject seemed to come to the surface this week in reaction to a new report, commissioned by the government and prepared by Lord Goldsmith on “Citizenship”. In their usual helpful way the British press have leapt upon a small recommendation that Lord Goldsmith made within it – that British kids should swear allegiance to the Queen and/or the flag on a daily basis at school. Of course they have as usual and probably on purpose, completely miss-represented what he was saying. The interpretation that they have been pedalling being that if kids are made to swear allegiance to the flag regularly enough they’ll start to conform – of course this very much a reversal of the truth and I am sure nowhere near what Lord Goldsmith was saying.
By way of putting my cards on the table I have to say that I believe that many, if not all of the ills of our nation (and probably many other nations too) stem from a lack of national pride. National pride is a larger-scale equivalent of self-respect and very much the same kind of thing that drives the family communities that Conservative leader David Cameron is going on about. Its also that same emotional soup from which strong brands derive. Nations, and brands are both communities and communities are built on the reassurance, feeling of belonging and confidence that arise when beliefs, attitudes and values are shared.
I was having a conversation with a chap in Prague a few weeks ago who was convinced that the reason that Czechs have become so bickering, back-biting and self-absorbed since the fall of communism is that their hatred of their communist oppressors that was once a common bond wasn’t replaced with anything else. Sadly, being basically clueless, the politicians there haven’t even come close to being up for this key task. As a result the country now has no focus, no common objective, no shared belief and as a result a state of every man for himself has developed in the void. For the Czechs this fact represents a seriously missed opportunity – the country was a blank sheet of paper, everyone was looking for a lead. The invitation was out for someone to pull it all together and nobody stepped up to the plate. While the first second republic president Havel was great at galvanising a generally ambivalent nation towards revolution, he proved singularly incapable of filling the void he had created. Klaus on the other hand, as witnessed by his New York speech three weeks ago, appears to be representing the emerging grab-all-you-can philosophy that is dominant in the republic now.
In the UK the task of focusing or re-focusing a nation is rather more complex. In exactly the same way that the structures and practices that a large organisation develops to help it maintain a status quo become the biggest obstacle to change, the UK is finding that, even though it may have the will to change the structures and practices of government and all other interested parties, that have been built and reinforced over the centuries now prevent that change.
Its not unlike the story that is unfolding in the US right now too. Obama recognises the need for change and seems to have a reasonable theory for bringing it about, while Hilary claims that her experience and insights of the people and the system give her the understanding Barak lacks when it comes to pre-empting and overcoming resistance to change. She says he will fail because he’s not going to know where the ambushes are going to come from (Although I’m not sure that she agrees with the principles of change any more than the ambushers she is so familiar with!).
However, as Barak says, once you recognise the need for change you are duty-bound to start trying to bring it about and that’s where US politics are ahead of the UK – they have Barak Obama, we Brits don’t seem to have anybody focussed enough to make it all happen. This fact mirrors my experience in brand development too. I frequently come across organisations who have in the past brought in some of the heavy guns to help them address their brand issues only to find that while they are great on spotting the problem and coming up with solutions, they often fail miserably when it comes to implementing them. My answer to this is a logical step-by-step approach that tackles all the obstacles in order. I go through this methodically, which takes time, but ensures that ultimately the required changes are brought about.
The first step with any project like this is to establish common ground (That’s what my Brand Model is all about) and that’s where the problems lie in the UK. I’ve listened to the views on this subject of a good many spokespeople for different interested parties over the last week or so and while I can see that there is fundamental agreement between many of them few of them recognise it, many are arguing about semantics and a very large proportion of them are confusing cause and effect. None of the people who I have heard representing any of the organisations seem to have a clue how to get things moving and all are very narrowly and tactically focussed.
What we and every other nation need is a senior minister whose sole responsibility is as champion of our national brand. Only then will we begin to be able to introduce the understanding among stakeholders and the initiatives we need to drive brand development. Its what is happening in the private sector, many businesses have directors responsible for brand development.
Compelling kids to salute the flag is definitely not the way to go, but a sure sign of the success of any national branding initiative would be if kids really wanted to raise their baseball hats when they passed a national flag. Actually, its not completely beyond hope either. As a part-time resident of Prague I see more Brit tourists wearing the George flag or Union Jack as they wander the attractions (or more commonly fall over in a bar!) and we are all familiar with the crowds at international football matches and other sporting events. So there’s is something to build on. So where is that national brand builder going to come from?
Posted: March 6, 2008
I have this art project thing that has been rattling around in the back of my head for years and I guess, when I have some spare time (Yeah, like, what’s that?) I might get around to looking at it again. It adopts a utilitarian icon that years ago everybody in the UK had, and highlights how these things mirror the development of our individual characters. The reason I have brought this up here is that this is not just about human character development, but the character of all living things, which, to me, and I hope to you, includes brands.
When I was a kid in the UK everyone had a pressed steel dustbin (trash-can, garbage can – insert as appropriate) that they kept outside their house and one of the distinctive sounds of my childhood was that of steel dustbins banging on the edge of the bin-men’s trailer when each week they came to empty the bins and haul the rubbish (trash, garbage) away. These days its all plastic wheelie-bins and automated heists and the music is less interesting.
Actually, these bins were multi-purpose and perhaps their most popular application, next to keeping rubbish in them, was as football (soccer) goal posts. We kids used to stand them up in the street to mark the soccer goal. Being kids, of course, we rarely returned them to their rightful place and so they were variously hit by cars or knocked over by drunks that didn’t see them in time. They were also dented as the bin men dumped the rubbish over the side of their truck.
Some folks painted their bins and I am aware that there are projects by students and artists in cities around the world even now where rubbish bins in public places have been decorated too. In the UK at least some people added their house number to them (in case they were stolen, I guess!) and the lids, which were also steel received the same treatment. Over their lifetime, these various encounters gave each bin an individual character – just as all other living things (and I include brands among them) are influenced by events that happen to and around them. So, that’s where my idea to adopt dustbins as my icon came from. The only trouble was, that when I got down to the execution … Yes, you are ahead of me … there were no old bashed-up bins to be found. Back to the drawing board on that one then!
So, what has this to do with anything? Well, as I said, brands work in exactly the same way. A brand character is not a rigid, one-time only tablet of stone, it evolves just like you and me. We can change our views in response to stimuli, events and the actions of others and brands, partly because they are our communities too, do the same.
Like the street where we live the nature of a brand community is influenced by the individual character, values, opinions of its inhabitants at any one time, and people will come and go. Its also influenced by what competitors do, like introducing new features, as well as by political actions. The current most powerful political influences are things like GM, global warming, carbon neutrality, sustainable living, vivisection, the green issue, third-world debt, exploitation and fair trade, which brands like Starbucks have adopted as an element of their own brand character.
Its vital for any brand manager to have a finger on the pulse of what their community members (their customers, suppliers, investors, distributors etc.) believe is important. If you don’t, you’ll lose existing community members. Its also important to know what’s buzzing in the world outside of your community so that you can reach out to potential new members with whom you might have some affinity.Good marketing is always interactive and good brand stewardship is about listening and responding to your brand community, which is why good brands stay topical and popular and in a constant state of change. Its also why, over time great brands evolve distinct, vivid characters, just like a dustbin (trash-can)!
Postscript: If you bump into a steel dustbin that you feel has character, by all means, snap a photo and send it to me. I’ll reserve the right to publish it in whatever way I see fit of course, but I’ll promise to credit you if I use your picture anywhere. If the numbers justify it and the quality is there, maybe we can create a gallery! Watch this space.