With 64% of UK business leaders saying Brexit has weakened Brand Britain, we find out if there is still value in promoting Britishness overseas. Plus, the heads of our China, India and Growth Services groups reveal how Brexit has affected key UK export markets.
Brand Britain has long been an ace up the sleeve of UK businesses venturing into new markets. British and 'Made in Britain' labels have come to represent everything from durability and quality to innovation and technology to refinement and luxury.
But many now worry that this hard-won reputation has been tarnished by recent political turmoil, the 2016 EU referendum and the way the Brexit process has been handled. Our new research found that 64% of UK business leaders feel Brexit has weakened Brand Britain.
Does Brand Britain still provide a competitive edge to your exports? We asked some of our leading advisers as well as branding experts, for their view on marketing British brands abroad and how different markets are viewing Brand Britain in 2019.
China: 'British exports benefit from relative neutrality'
In China, according to Simon Bevan, Head of our China Britain services group, adding a stamp of Britishness can still help a UK business boost its sales overseas. He feels the UK currently benefits from the relative neutrality it has displayed during recent trade-related tensions between the US and China.
“One of the attractions of British businesses to the Chinese market is that Britain is not America,” says Bevan, “and, while that plays out very subtly, it is not a bad thing in the geopolitical landscape at the moment.”
China also appreciates British heritage and– being great supporters of education – the Chinese admire some of the UK’s prestigious universities, as well as our creative arts, design and tech sectors. It all adds up to a potent mix that can help elevate British exports to China.
Read next: your insider's guide to operating in China, covering tried and tested business strategies for success >>
India: 'No impact from Brexit – but price matters'
Brexit doesn’t seem to have affected trade in India either, says Anuj Chande, Head of our South Asia group. “There has been no impact,” he says, explaining that the traits that continue to endear British brands to the Indian consumer are reliability, quality and style. With the Indian middle classes now numbering around 250 million people (roughly one-fifth of the country), this is clearly a vast market to try and tap into.
But Chande notes that British brand owners may have to lower their expectations when it comes to the prices they think their products can command.
“The Indian consumer can be very brand-conscious, but at the same time they are price-sensitive,” he explains. “While they will pay a premium for a British brand, they may not be willing to pay the full premium price.”
Read next: your insider's guide to operating in India - understand more about this emerging global giant with our hard-won insights from experienced market experts >>
Europe: Mixed views on buying British post-Brexit
According to Made in Britain, a 2018 report from Barclays, India, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continue to be especially receptive to British-made products. But the report was less encouraging on how Brand Britain was viewed across Europe.
Respondents within the EU anticipated that they would be buying fewer British-made products when Britain leaves the EU. The study also showed that neither France nor Germany were prepared to pay a premium for British-made products, with the exception of food. German respondents also admitted to being happy to pay a small premium for our alcoholic beverages.
Despite this, and considered from a global perspective, the report’s authors estimated an extra £3.45 billion a year of added economic value could be generated by promoting the Britishness of products, with quality assurance and international respect noted as the key drivers behind this.
Global: 'New opportunities for international growth'
Simon Littlewood says that while uncertainty is challenging for many mid-market firms, research suggests it presents new opportunities.
“Our study of 300 mid-market businesses found that Brexit has had a dampening effect on many, with 68% more cautious about international growth after Brexit ," says Littlewood. “We also found that 64% believe Brand Britain has been weakened due to Brexit, while foreign perceptions of Britain have changed. Half of leaders agreed US companies are less likely to partner with them now.
“Despite this, Brexit has forced many into new markets, with 67% looking for opportunities beyond Europe and over half (56%) have developed new products for this global market.”
“Integrity to your own brand, rather than Brand Britain, is absolutely critical," says our Growth Adviser Paul McGreevy. "What you can do is turn up the nuances to make your Britishness more relevant in the market... exaggerate some aspects of the brand that you believe are going to have a greater affinity in the market than they would at home."
Brand Britain post-Brexit
Business leaders need to review their overseas strategy to ensure they play to their strengths, while not alienating potential customers. And there remains a note of caution while Brexit remains unresolved.
“Brand Britain is clouded with Brand Brexit,” says Richard Sauerman, a global branding expert based in Australia. “In a connected world, Brand Britain seems to want to stand alone, a stance that takes it back to the days of the Empire. Going backwards in a world that’s moving forwards at such speed is a concern.”
The attributes that give Brand Britain and British-made products their appeal, however, are likely to endure, according to branding expert Helen Edwards, founding partner at Passion brand and a columnist at Marketing Week.
“If Britishness is part of what your brand is then I don’t think it’s a case of simply dropping it. But you’ve got to ask yourself what role it is playing, who your target customers are and what they might think of Britain and Britishness. Then work out if it makes sense to try and leverage the Brand Britain aspects of that,” she says.
In short, whether or not Brand Britain still provides a competitive edge when trading overseas lies in the products or services you are selling, where you are exporting to and the steps you take to leverage your Britishness when you get there.
At the end of the day, selling a sumptuous car with a glorious British heritage in China is always going to be easier than trying to export an unknown British brand to an ambivalent buyer across the Channel.