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Britain’s Brand obsession

By George Sumner - posted Monday, 15 January 2001

Several years before I moved to the USA, people in Britain warned me about living in a shallow, image-obsessed, low-brow, mass-marketed culture. Stories were aplenty of having 200 channels of naff TV; of a nation divided between anorexia and obesity; and of the Jerry Springer audience representing the ‘real’ America. But on returning to Britain I have come to a place that is no better than the country people warned me about.

The Britain I returned to not only replays Jerry Springer’s talk show, but has commissioned him to make his own chat show, invited him as a frequent guest on daytime TV, and featured him in adverts. Walk into any High Street bookstore and you will find on prominent display an autobiography of a lame game show host, soap-opera star or any other B-list celebrity. But beyond our own inroads into trash TV and celebrity deification, Britain seems to be getting more image-conscious. Traditional stores like Marks and Spencer and C&A have suffered, while names like Hugo Boss, DKNY and Armani pop up more frequently on high streets. However, I recently heard something that will take this trend to a new extreme: the British Post Office is no longer to be known by that name, from April it will be known as Consignia.

The Post Office here is a publicly owned institution responsible for delivering letters, issuing stamps and providing services like TV licence and passport applications. What is changing the name supposed to achieve? Is the slick new image of Consignia to induce me into a letter-writing frenzy or crave a second passport? Well, apparently it is an exercise in updating the institution’s image to a dynamic and efficient service provider. Now, those of us outside the marketing industry may think the way to do this is to provide dynamic and efficient services. But no, everything is in the brand name. It is a trend becoming more commonplace, Andersen Consulting recently became known simply as Accenture.


Reinvention has been going on for a while now. Take Levis, a company that in the late 1990s faced declining sales, with a product that was seen as tired and unfashionable. The jeans company had an image problem – they had no group to relate to. Buying a pair of Levis made no statement about yourself or your lifestyle. So the company responded in 1999 by launching its Red Line jeans, a product that did not bear the Levi brand name. In her book, No Logo, journalist Naomi Klein explains that companies now try and stay ahead of the curve by employing young consultants to hunt for whatever it is that makes a company ‘cool’. Nothing can be more fatal to a product that to be seen as ‘uncool’. Reinvention can help by removing old baggage and associations, and putting forward a vibrant new name.

The need for reinvention is understandable in the fashion industry, but now it expands not just into the Post Office but also into politics. The most obvious example occurred to the left in Britain. When Tony Blair took over the Labour Party leadership he inherited a party tainted by four consecutive election defeats. So the old Labour that had been out of office for 18 years had to be shuffled off and replaced by New Labour, an invincible new political force. Earlier, in the USA a group of centrists had formed the New Democrats, with Bill Clinton as their figurehead. In both cases the reinvention promoted the party leaders as youthful and cool, appearing on light-hearted chat shows and talking about their favourite bands.

It should come as no surprise that a popular brand is crucial in politics, like a consumer good the parties need to have widespread appeal. The need for a strong brand name is most evident in a candidate-based political system like America’s. With voters not choosing on the basis of party loyalty, the individual’s name recognition is everything. This explains why there are such enduring political dynasties like the Kennedys or the Rockefellers in a country that takes such pride in being meritocratic. A newcomer with a famous name has the benefit of the old associations and will receive instant publicity. The familiarity is reassuring to voters so they know what they are getting. This year saw another reinvention, when the voters who eight years ago rejected the dowdy and clapped-out George Bush chose new, younger, more accessible version. Bush Jr. got ahead early in the game due to his high name recognition, publicity and the old boys’ network that goes along with his name.

Yet reinvention isn’t the only solution when a company finds itself with an image crisis. Some companies and products can tackle the problem not by shedding the ridiculed image, but by embracing it. By actually playing up the characteristics that turned the public off, a company can find itself with a new cool audience and credibility as parody of its former self. Take the entertainment industry, with Charlie’s Angels as the latest in a line of movie remakes of old TV series, self-consciously using the clichés we remember. The Sound of Music was once a painful musical that I would fear seeing on every public holiday. But now cinemas in New York and London are holding Sing-A-Long Sound of Music nights. People turn up to the cinema in fancy dress to join along in their favourite songs, transforming the film into a youthful super-camp extravaganza. But I doubt this trend will move into politics – the world is not ready for an ironic resurgence of the religious right.

All these types of reinvention have done much to help the profits of the coolhunters, the PR and marketing firms. But while the changes certainly alter the way we see the products, is the product itself any different? Whether I wear fancy dress or not, The Sound of Music is still the same awful film. Are we all just suckers who get taken in by the latest spin and image change? Well enough of all these questions, I have to buy a consignment of stamps so I can parade around my high street with a Consignia tote bag.

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About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

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