Royal Dutch Shell Group .com Rotating Header Image

The Observer: It’s high time British companies got on the brand wagon

*Shell ranked at 89 out of 100 in the Interbrand Best Global Brands 2006 rankings; the lowest ranked oil company.

Will Hutton
Sunday October 8, 2006

We live in the age of the brand. Whether it’s the Conservative party’s new oak tree logo, on ample display in Bournemouth as purported evidence of a change of direction, or bidders vying to buy the branded website YouTube, the story is to get the branding right. This is now the vital precondition for business and political success.

It’s not easy. Establishing and maintaining a strong brand is elusive and expensive; for every revitalised Marks & Spencer or New Labour there is a litany of disasters. Branding has always mattered as a signal of a product’s quality, but in 2006 it counts even more.

Choices are constantly multiplying as society gets wealthier and more sophisticated (and now we have websites). A credible brand has become a vital short cut to guide consumers over whether and what to buy. It has also become a statement about aspirations and even beliefs. What we wear, eat and drive and which websites we visit have become a source of identity in a secular society. Brand values mingle with human values, feeding off each other in an uneasy and, for the critics, unhealthy symbiosis. The would-be successful brander has got to read the changing cultural runes well; it can make or break a company or a career.
Last week, the bust up between Sir Philip Green, boss of Topshop, and brand director Jane Shepherdson was symptomatic of just how seriously business now takes the question. She has been the inspiration behind Topshop’s rebranding; Green’s judgments on branding are no less strongly held. The row has been long simmering, inflated – it is reported – by a different assessment of how supermodel Kate Moss might help or hinder the brand. Heavyweight business reputations are now made or lost on such judgments.

Yet it was only five years ago that Naomi Klein exposed brands as sources of self-inflicted manipulation and exploitation. No Logo was a global book. Branding was a form of cultural and economic bullying, she argued, in which we allowed our real feelings to be distorted to create mouth-watering brand franchises and high profits for western multinationals. The time had come for a revolt.

But there has been no revolt. If anything, branding has become more important; we accept whatever bullying branding might entail because we find it useful – and in any case branding has moved on too, responding to the concerns of consumers. Today’s successful brands stress a commitment to sustainability, the environment and healthy communities. Behind the brand, companies make more attempts to meet the promise, partly compensating for the marketing hype. Supermarket chains are vying for the green, organic consumer. Toyota’s hybrid, energy-saving Prius has transformed its brand image from worthy car manufacturer to a trend-setting corporation fighting climate change.

And again, brand-owners are being both self-serving and helpful. The iPod is genuinely the avenue to your own play list, even while it makes Apple rich; MySpace is your route to a rich social life. But it’s a two-way process, as every brand consultant stresses. The brand can promise personalised identity, authenticity, and integrity; but if it is going to work buyers have to feel, after the purchase, that the brand keeps its promise. Toyota’s Prius does just that.

British companies are not great at much of this. I looked up the industry’s gold standard … the Interbrand/Businessweek 2006 list of the top 100 global brands, based on how much brands contribute to a company’s worldwide image and revenue. While the Americans have more than 50 brands in the list, the Germans nine, and the French eight, Britain ranks alongside Switzerland with only five – and all but one rank below 50.

Our top brand is HSBC, in any case now considering leaving Britain. The next four are BP, Reuters, Smirnoff and Burberry (I count Shell as half British and half Dutch). It’s not to do with de-industrialisation. The key to the success of America’s Kellogg’s, Microsoft or Gillette, or France’s Danone, L’Oreal or Louis Vuitton is they have hard-wired themselves into how their brands connect with culture and markets. And then they stretch themselves to deliver the promise.

British companies would like to join their ranks, but are less connected to culture and markets and less geared up to deliver high-quality products. It’s so much easier to sell out in a takeover or make fortunes in the City rather than devote a career to the lengthy and expensive business of building a global brand.

The weakness has a big impact on our culture. British capitalism is more ephemeral and transient; too few of our companies are there for the long haul. As a result the corporate approach to branding tends to be short-termist and faddish. A Tesco or a Rolls-Royce is the exception rather than the rule.

As a society we have learnt to sense the lack of long-term intent of most British brands. We can all see what the Tories are trying to do with their oak tree, but how deep is the conversion it signals? Mr Cameron has a massive task on his hands. Equally Gordon Brown has to show us that the New Labour brand is for real under a different leader. Branding matters. And in our climate it is very, very hard.,,1890332,00.html

*Additional information added by and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: