Analysis: Brands reclaim their English pride

With St George’s Day approaching, brands are increasingly keen to ally themselves with England’s patron saint. Ian Hall asks what has happened to make Englishness, often linked with less savoury characteristics, sellable

When England wakes up to St George's Day on Sunday, a slew of brands will be on hand to help it celebrate the patron saint.

Charles Wells, for one, has blazed a pro-England trail for its Bombardier beer, and relishes the commercial potential of 23 April.

It even has a clock on its website counting down to England's historically unexploited national day.

Sarah McGhie, PR manager at the Bedford-based brewer, says: 'Our ad agency – Team Saatchi – looked at the concept of Englishness for us back in 1998, and there seemed to be a gap in the market for promoting patriotism. "Ownership" of St George's Day was there for the taking.'

English pride, though, often conjures up images of football hooligans and the far-right, a fact that has caused many brands to steer clear of association. McGhie admits that getting Bombardier's pro-St George agenda off the ground was tough media-wise. 'When we started this, the national media just weren't interested – they had their own agenda about the National Front and British National Party,' she says.

'Getting our message across that patriotism can be celebrated was the hardest work I have ever had to do in PR, harder even than my work in crisis management. But press attitudes have changed a great deal in the past couple of years.'

Gaining support
Bombardier's campaign has involved more than consumer promotions. Crucially, it got The Publican onside for a campaign pointing out the bizarre fact that (until more liberal licensing laws came into force five months ago) pubs could get a late licence for St Patrick's Day but not for St George's Day.

With that battle won (albeit by default), Charles Wells is stepping up the pressure on politicians to make St George's Day a bank holiday.

The English Beef & Lamb Executive, which uses Good Relations
Consumer, is also campaigning for St George's Day to be made a bank holiday. Activity last year included getting cricket legend Ian 'Beefy' Botham to hand ribs of beef to politicians at party HQs (its slogan was Beef up St George's Day). It also ran a poetry competition for the best 'Ode to Beef', and visited radio stations with Yorkshire puddings (and, of course, beef).

Good Relations associate director Christine Morgan admits: 'St George's Day is becoming more congested with brands trying to make noise.'

This year the agency is promoting a search for 'modern-day heroes' (a similar initiative is already up and running from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which launched 'Icons – a Portrait of England', in January).

The supermarkets, too, are ever more eagerly involved. Sainsbury's will this year run promotions on English drinks (including Bombardier) and sell specially decorated cakes; Tesco will have themed in-store displays; and Asda stores will receive a 'huge' St George's flag, with staff dressed up in costumes.

Asda PR manager Sian Horner says: 'For St Patrick's Day, everyone celebrates with a Guinness, silly hat and traditional Irish fare, while St George's Day has faded into the background. Things are starting to change – our customers are excited about being English and want to celebrate that fact – we're giving them a helping hand.'

Promotion of this Thursday's (20 April) annual Enjoy England Awards for Excellence will also be tied in to St George's Day in a campaign by BGB Communications. Meanwhile, Capital Radio and ITV1's London Tonight are jointly running a poll on 'what makes London great' to tie in with 23 April.

Attitude shift
Colin Tabor, who runs two-year-old website, argues: 'The tide has turned and St George's Day is coming to the forefront.'

His clothing line – under the slogan 'A Day for England' – is, he says, merely 'the acorn' for grander ambitions: he wants to team up with 'a big retailer' to give his campaign a further boost.

But many brands continue to shy away from association with St George's Day. One problem is that England has strong regional identities, while Bell Pottinger Consumer creative director Matt Fearnley points to another issue: 'Clarity is crucial to successful comms and the problem with Englishness is that it is such a confused notion. We suffer from a national schizophrenia – sometimes we're embarrassed of Englishness, and other times we're proud of it.'

Superbrands UK CEO Ben Hudson points out: 'A significant number of brands use their national heritage effectively. But mass-market brands are taking a more global perspective.'

So is there a business case for tying in with St George? In Bombardier's case, evidence is overwhelmingly positive. The Publican editor Caroline Nodder says: 'Cask ales had a beer-and-sandles image, and Charles Wells faced a declining market. Now its brand is seen as a category leader and is recognised nationally. The firm's profile has lifted thanks to Bombardier.'

Where there is money to be made and reputations to be boosted, more brands will surely follow. Charles Wells three years ago commissioned research showing that by becoming a more celebrated occasion, the day might generate as much as £39m in additional consumer expenditure, with pubs alone raking in £14m.

St George might hail from beyond these shores but his personal brand is likely to have an ever higher stock in the nation that claims him as its patron saint.

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