Last week, comedian and Labour supporter Ben Elton joined the list
of showbiz names who have denounced the Government’s campaign to improve
Britain’s image abroad in a Radio Times article entitled ’Cool
Britannia? What a load of rubbish’.
In the light of such high-profile criticism, PR agencies are debating
whether to advise their clients to endorse the campaign or to stay well
clear of what may end up being a public relations disaster.
Labour’s rebranding exercise, bolstered by a seminal report published
last September by think-tank Demos, aims to update Britain’s image
abroad, moving it away from that of a strike-ridden, former imperial
power to a multicultural state at the cutting edge of design and
The policy’s main embodiment so far has been a 33-strong panel of
private and public sector experts - known as Panel 2000 - set up earlier
this month to devise a rebranding strategy for Britain. The panel is
headed by Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett and includes fashion
designer Stella McCartney, Waheed Ali, managing director of TV
production company Planet 24, Sir Colin Marshall, president of the
Confederation of British Industry and Martin Sorrell, CEO of
communications services group WPP.
In addition, the Government is backing an initiative reminiscent of
previous national campaigns (see panel) called Millennium Products which
identifies and promotes cutting edge British products and services.
The main criticism of Cool Britannia - a widely derided play on Rule
Britannia with which Labour’s campaign has become synonymous - has been
that the Government is jumping on a trendy bandwagon to which it does
not belong and whose members do not want it there. PR agencies
specialising in the youth sector, whose clients include some of the
cutting edge companies with which the Government is bolstering its
policy, share this opinion and are largely advising their clients to
steer clear of it.
Tim Lewis is director of new events and entertainment PR agency Synapse
Communication, and his clients include innovative shop window designers
Elemental Design. He says: ’Once something is said to be cool, it ceases
to be. The Government has seen something at grassroots level and tried
to turn it into a corporate thing - they’re trying to corporatise
Britain’s good vibes. If the Spice Girls told you they were cool, you
wouldn’t necessarily go for it.’
However, this partly misses the point about the rebranding Britain
campaign, concentrating instead on the media hype which has surrounded
Cool Britannia and whether people like Ben Elton decide the Government
is sufficiently cool to demand support from fashion, pop music and
design companies. If it works, the campaign will amount to a coherent,
all-encompassing strategy to promote the country and, indirectly its
Mark Leonard, who authored the Demos report, says: ’You’ve got to
differentiate Cool Britannia from rebranding Britain, which is not about
being flash and cool but about making sure people see Britain as it
’Many people’s perceptions are 20 years out-of-date and it rubs off on
British companies. I think everybody operating a company based in
Britain will benefit from Britain having a better image.’
In this sense, agencies and clients should be actively participating in
the campaign. Leading the way are companies like outdoor advertiser the
More Group and vacuum cleaner designer and manufacturer Dyson, who
agreed to show their products at, and in some cases contribute to the
funding of, the much-hyped Department of Trade and Industry exhibition
Powerhouse:UK. The exhibition is a showcase for British design housed in
an inflatable silver structure on Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall.
As Ylva French, chair of Ylva French Communications, who handled PR for
Powerhouse:UK says: ’You have to take negative comments in order to get
the positive message out.
’Britain is always going to mean different things to different people
but pushing the modern image makes people sit up and think.’
That in itself must qualify as good PR.
PREVIOUS NATIONAL CAMPAIGNS
Back Britain a business slogan which first appeared in 1967 and spawned
a campaign launched the following year by the Industrial Society and
backed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson had heralded the rebirth
of British industry a few years earlier in his ’white heat of
Campaign efforts included a song by Bruce Forsyth, two million stickers
and badges, and people were encouraged to work overtime for free. Within
a year, it was discovered that Back Britain t-shirts were made in
Portugal, trade unions objected to the idea of anyone working extra
hours for free and the campaign fizzled out.
The Help Britain Group a rival campaign to Back Britain, orchestrated by
then-Labour MP Robert Maxwell.It hampered the Industrial Society’s
efforts and contributed to Back Britain’s downfall.
Buy British Beef a campaign launched by the Meat and Livestock
Commission in the wake of the Government’s decision to ban beef on the
bone in January 1998. Its target was a minimum five per cent shift in
loyalty towards British beef and it included a British beef week at the
Houses of Parliament and a pub competition to produce the best beef and
ale pie. The campaign concludes this month so its success has yet to be