Rebranding: PR caution over cool as a corporate tool - Celebrities have already criticised the Government’s obsession with ’Cool Britannia’ and though they support the concept, many PR people are warning clients to steer clear

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’.

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

really is.

’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.


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

technology’ speech.

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


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