The EU referendum held on 23 June 2016 created the largest societal split the UK has ever seen. It divided families, separated generations and even broke up friendships.
It led to one of the closest votes tallies we have ever seen in this country. The two percent margin was unprecedented in our political system and the consequential impact of the result was significant and swift.
Party loyalties were no longer relevant, family allegiances were no more, and social economic grouping projections were worthless. The referendum took British identity, grabbed it by the throat and shook it to its very core.
Fast forward two years and we are no clearer on where we are. Endless disputes, debates, appointments, resignations, make-ups, break-ups and shake-ups have meant that we still don’t know which direction the referendum is taking us.
But one thing that can be assumed is, that Britain is leaving the EU. What the departure looks like is still anybody’s guess, but it will happen. Maybe. Probably.
Businesses are preparing as best they can for whatever the future looks like and business leaders are looking at how they can adapt and flex their products and services to mitigate against what will undoubtedly be a major period of change.
Marketers have a real challenge on their hands. None more so than in the hospitality sector where the labour issues are well documented.
‘Brand Britain’ is going through a period of flux and the once ‘easy’ to define narrative is no more. Or is it?
Lin Dickens, Marketing Director at caterer Bartlett Mitchell, chaired a discussion between senior figures from across the industry about the direction of travel for brands in a post-Brexit Britain at a roundtable held at H&C EXPO.
The brief made one point clear: Brexit is happening and that was not up for debate. The basis for all discussion was formed around this ‘certainty’.
With a panel made up of leading associations, hoteliers, trade bodies, charities, and branding experts, the discussion was lively.
The Brexit effect on identity
Kicking off with a question about the actual impact of Brexit on British identity, Natalie Maher, from creative agency Pollitt & Partners, offered some strong insight.
“The very fact that we have had Brexit suggests that we have an identity crisis as a nation. We don’t have a unified view of the world. We’ve known this for a while, but this has really brought it to the surface. I don’t think there is a single view on what makes Britain fantastic as a place and we are all struggling to cope with it.
“We do, however, have the opportunity to say ‘who are we really?’ What is the shape of our identity in the current climate? Brexit has forced us to deal with it.”
She added: “Every brand will face a situation where they come to a crisis point and question what they actually stand for. Does ‘Brand Britain’ mean superficial things like a Union Jack – or are our shared values deeper than that?”
The British brand positioning, or narrative, seems to be confused. The broad range of views, divided loyalties, and the post-truth society we live in seems to have compounded issues. The need for collaboration has never been more important.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, the new body formed out of the British Hospitality Association and ALMR (Association of Licensed Retailers), said: “We really need to understand that we are trying to navigate through uncharted waters and we can’t do this in isolation as an individual brand or a company. We need to work in collaboration and have one voice. There are many conversations currently taking place but we all need to do more, and together.”
Maher added: “When the Olympics arrived in 2012, we all thought we’d mess it up somewhere. Let’s be honest. Even the recent World Cup showed how we never have any expectation to do well. We were proved wrong on both occasions. We love to be an underdog in Britain and I think this is something we need to look at as far as our identity goes.
“Brexit is no different. We need to be looking at how we are perceived, and it needs to be grounded in truth. We shouldn’t borrow lazily from old identities or false expectations. It needs to be real.”
Old stereotypes shaping new relationships
It was argued that these old identities, or stereotypes, could be used as a positive and proactive tool for engagement.
Dickens said: “There is an understanding that people stereotype goods according to where they were produced. For example, consumers are ready to believe that German goods are well engineered, or French products are chic. What different aspects of being British could we highlight for our brands?”
Claire Lincoln, sales director at UK-based specialist independent wine merchant The Vintner, said: “There is a mark of quality associated with a British brand and that is something we are really tapping into. British brands have a strong global presence and it’s important that we continue to build on this.
“Opportunity really is knocking for the UK wine industry and we are raising our awareness as each day passes. We know that there are some industries that tap into cream teas, or Cool Britannia. We are doing the same with wine.
“The British wine industry has really developed in recent times. So much so that we are seeing people come to the UK to do their wine training.”
British wine, it seems, is certainly an area that may see some benefits in the coming years. According to Lincoln, the value of the UK wine industry currently sits at £130m with six million bottles being produced. The expectation is that, by 2020, Britain will be producing 40 million bottles.
Costs associated with exporting goods, coupled with increased awareness and focus on production, could be a running theme in the foreseeable future. Lincoln added: “The reality is that imported goods are likely to be more expensive, so there will be opportunities for British brands. We really need to seize any such opportunities.”
Britain is open for business
Harry Murray MBE, chairman of Lucknam Park Hotel and Spa, agreed. He said: “It’s important to try to find the positives in any situation. Tourism is growing at an enormous pace and there is no reason this should stop.
“We need to keep reminding people that Britain is open for business. We, as British businesses in the hospitality space, can offer the highest standards and services possible. The UK is now a world-leader in hospitality. Despite the obvious issues we will face around staffing, we can celebrate the fact that we can provide some of the best service on a global stage.”
This positive feeling around British business values are important. Tom Sensier, managing director at TM Electronics, which manufactures high accuracy thermometers and sensors, pointed out that there is still a prestige associated with British products. He said: “We export internationally and push the fact that we are 100 per cent British. We feel this is a USP in our space. We are seen as a very innovative country and the bearer of great ideas. The British brand does carry weight.”
Hospitality sector – the face of British produce
Hospitality as a whole was seen as a vital part of reframing the Brand Britain narrative. With one in 10 jobs in the UK sitting with the sector, the role the industry plays in the perception of the UK cannot be underestimated.
Hospitality, it seems, can be the poster-child for positive sentiment, despite some of the perceptions that may have formed about the UK post-EU referendum. According to the panel, the industry can use the changing circumstances as an opportunity to shine a light on products and service produced in this country. Nicholls said: “The hospitality sector is literally a shop front for UK product.”
Jade Brennan, head of marketing for the Sustainable Restaurants Association, added: “While we have always celebrated ‘local’ over simply ‘British’ this is an interesting time for customer-facing communications. Companies should use this time to be proud of their supply chain and tell their customers about it. When brands talk to their audiences, they should be a little braver.”
The sector, some argue, is ahead of the curve when looking at sourcing and traceability. While the drivers and rationale behind some of the activity can be questioned, few would argue that the sector is better placed than many others to mitigate any impacts.
Sustainability of the past can help to mitigate impacts
Tim Rycroft, Food and Drinks Federation, corporate affairs director, added: “We have spent the last 30 or 40 years transforming our food and drink services and brands in the UK. We have an unprecedentedly high quality food and drink sector that has been hard earned. If there are any few silver linings to be had from Brexit, it’s that people will see the value we’ve developed over the years. We really need to tap into this.”
But he warned that this trust can be undermined in an instant if the post-Brexit arrangements are difficult. He said: “We need to understand that we will not have any certainty with Brexit. And while businesses are used to managing risk, one thing that would massively undermine our position is any shortage of food leading to restaurants closing if we crash out of the EU. It is important that every business in our sector has properly validated its supply chain.”
Nicholls added: “The recent CO2 crisis should be another wake-up call. We’ve made great strides in building in ‘just in time’ ordering but this issue showed the fragility of the supply chain. We had to look to Europe to help us because we ran out. Clearly any delays in trade isn’t great. People will start to understand how fragile it is when it is tested like this.”
She added: “We need to be honest with ourselves too and understand that we cannot be truly idealistic in the context of a sustainable labour market. No matter how much we train and develop people, we have a labour shortage due to the drop in birth rates.”
Nicholls explained that between 2017 and 2021 there is projected to be 182,000 fewer 15-24 year olds.
She warned: “We are not going to breed our way out of this. It will hit our sector hard. We have a demographic timebomb. We need to find different ways of attracting people to our industry.
“We have to focus on what is good about our sector and need a rebranding exercise. There is a view that we are low pay, low skills and low value. We need to tell the positive stories and change the narrative.”
Chris Moore, chief executive of The Clink, a charity that aims to reduce reoffending through the training and rehabilitation of prisoners, echoed these views. He said: “It’s true that there are many business sectors that are already struggling to fill roles. We are doing what we can to help fill some of these with people who are often skilled enough to step into these roles but don’t always have the opportunities open to them. We all need to find new ways to solve these challenges.”
Nicholls’s reference to ‘just in time’ delivery is indicative of modern approach taken by British business. This efficiency of service has been a USP for British brands, but much of this innovation could be under threat.
Dickens pointed to comments from futurists who have predicted that as we leave the EU, novelty, technology and disruption may be less desirable. Customers could be drawn to simplicity, continuity and familiarity. She said: “During challenging times, the ‘flight to safety’ mode may attract cautious innovation, simple comforts and reassurance. It’s important that innovation isn’t stifled by any developments.”
Lucknam Park’s Murray agreed and added: “Despite Brexit we’re still the same country, have the same history and have the same skills. We have to be confident in our ability to deliver.”
The answer, according to both Maher and Lincoln is finding common ground among us all. Maher said: “The courage to galvanise is a British value, we need to do this,” and Lincoln added: “We have to find common ground in any community and come together.”
The concluding sentiment among the industry leaders was upbeat yet veiled with underlying words of caution about the realities of operating in a very different looking Britain. The industry will adapt – it must – and British brands will need to tap into the resiliency that seems to be the bedrock of British identity.
The last word was best left to Murray, who passionately enthused: “My message to my teams is that they should be confident, have trust in their employers to look after them and don’t look to the negatives.
“Leaders will need to inspire more than ever. We are in the happiness business and there is opportunity in every situation.”
Key takeaways for brands in a post Brexit Britain
1 Collaboration – one voice
2 Reinforce and communicate the quality, resilience and innovation we have in the UK
4 Stress test and make sure you have a robust supply chain
5 Seek out the opportunities in the situation
6 Provide inspiring leadership
If you would like to add your own thought to – What does Brexit really mean for ‘Brand Britain’? – please be our guest on twitter here using #brandbritain
Article by Piers Zangana, Director, Susa Comms
Copyright – Images in this article by Majella O’Connell, Pavlova & Cream, London