What does it mean to be British? asks the International Herald Tribune today. Good question – and it probably depends on which side of the border you’re viewing it from.
The UK has one of the strongest national brands out there, with a wealth of visible symbols, cultural idiosyncracies, landmarks and a rich heritage. To a great degree, Britain continues to sell its past – the bearskins outside Buckingham Palace, the thatched cottages and cream teas, the country pubs and medieaval market towns. There’s an appetite for that and, at least from the outside, most people will have a clear vision of what Britain “means.” More importantly, it’s a vision that will encourage people to visit – tourisim in the U.K. is a multi-billion dollar industry. At the end of the day, who cares about what the British themselves think?
As a long term British expat, I often argue that “the U.K.” is an image I carry around in my head – an image that no longer exists and arguably never did. I don’t associate the country with binge drinking and soccer hooliganism and I think if I grabbed someone off the street and asked them the three things that come to mind about Britain then most people would not think of those either. In fact, I could probably draw up a list of 25 items that would cover the majority of answers.
The issues that the IHT addresses are, in many ways, similar to the issues that Korea faces. Korea tends to look at the brand from the perspective of what Koreans feel about being Korean – and those images do not gel with international perceptions. No-one other than a Korean is going to have the deeply felt attachment to the land that is characterisitic of many people in this country. No-one else is going to feel bereft if they have to go two days without kimchi. No-one else – except the Chinese – cares who goes to the Yakasuni shrine.
At the end of the day, a modern brand serves a single purpose – to arouse desire in a third party. That desire could manifest itself in stakeholder loyalty, increased perceived value, higher respect or the purchase of an air ticket. But the first step in arousing desire in someone else is understanding what that person desires.
What the British themselves think Britain is or should be is irrelevant to the brand, so long as the targets of the brand continue to value it. Likewise, what Koreans believe about Brand Korea is largely immaterial in building international prestige. If the brand exists only in the mind of the consumer, then it is in the mind of the consumer that you must search for it.