“We’re out of the EU” “Britain breaks with Europe” “Great Britain or Great betrayal” “Dismal” “No deal… No hope… No clue… No Confidence” “Britain faces Brexit trade disaster” “Britain divides” “Brexit mess to dump UK right in it” “At last Brexit begins” “May’s push for deal ends in chaos” “What do voters make of Brexit now?” “So what the hell happens now?”
This is a just a small drop in an ocean of news headlines and debate about Brexit – the UK’s departure from the European Union. Since the referendum result in 2016, Brexit has dominated front pages, opinion column inches, TV and radio broadcasts, social media, forums, podcasts, blogs, images, videos and more. And that’s just here in the UK, Brexit is also one of the most talked about topics in Europe and the rest of the world.
A quick Google search for ‘Brexit’ reveals more than 200 million search results. ‘Brexit consequences’ itself a whopping 231 million search results. As well as the news, opinion, debate, and comment, questions abound from the public: Is Brexit legally binding? What started Brexit? Can the UK change its mind on Brexit? What happens now? What does it mean for businesses, trade, travel, Brits abroad? The list goes on.
Making sense of it… especially for the public and crucially business owners in a state of limbo… is an insurmountable struggle.
Most reporting has so far focused on the consequences of Brexit, rather than the process, logistics or the outcomes, impacts, and actions we all need to take. And perhaps understandably so, because they are still relatively unknown.
Which is why, when you examine the online space, Google search results for Britain, the UK, and Brexit, are largely either negative or confused. As I type ‘The UK is…’ into Google, there’s an equally daunting autosuggest ‘finished’, ‘doomed’, ‘depressing’ and ‘falling apart’.
All of this points to a negative impact on the way the world views UK plc. Negative content damages brands and our national brand is suffering.
The impact of negative online content and poor leadership
75 per cent of businesses say that online press, comments, forums, and reviews are important to the financial and reputational state of their business. Couple this with the fact that 65 per cent of people trust search engines the most when they are conducting research online and you can see why Brand Britain is in trouble. Executives say that, on average, 49 per cent of the reputation of their company is attributable to their CEO’s reputation. In the case of Brand Britain, the company is the UK and our CEO our Prime Minister.
Just a few years ago we were held in high international regard for our diplomacy, democracy, and pragmatism. Britain was indeed recognised globally as an influential centre of finance and culture. It’s true that for a long time, commentators would argue that Brand Britain stood for a particular type of commerce, a certain way of doing business. The UK’s passion for democracy and fairness, its dedication to quality and flair for combining heritage with creativity and innovation have each played their part in defining Britain’s unique and trusted identity. Throw in a dash of Cool Britannia and the success of the 2012 London Olympics and you can see how our positive reputation has grown and developed.
Brand Britain’s identity crisis
But the political and economic impact of Brexit, defeated votes, confusing explanations, constant uncertainty and a very public narrative of a nation divided has shattered this. Brexit’s big loser is Britain’s reputation.
Brand Britain is no longer driven by this perception of a global superpower because the world has watched as Brexit has divided Britain and blown up British politics. Trust, which is a key reputation influencer has been wiped out. As the details of any transition continue to be debated, and whatever transpires with Brexit, this is a historic moment in time. One from which the damage to Brand Britain’s reputation could take a generation to recover, which is what’s worrying business owners.
Since the referendum result in 2016, commentators and experts from across the political and economic spectrum have been warning about a loss of investment in the UK and of its role as a European base or gateway. Shortly after the referendum, the advertising industry magazine Campaign was urging people to protect this tarnished reputation. An editorial from Rana Brightman, strategist at Sigel + Gale cautioned: “We thought we knew what leaving the EU could mean for our image and reputation in the world but I don’t think we quite realised how much it could impact our identity. Right now, Brand Britain looks to be in shambles and it needs to pull itself together before it truly crashes and burns.”
A 2018 WPP Best Countries survey revealed a decline in global confidence. The UK dropped from third to fourth place in the global list of the most attractive places to live and work, signaling a growing lack of confidence in its economic strength post-Brexit. Britain slipped from 19th to 20th place in terms of being ‘open for business’ and now falls behind Germany, Austria and Luxembourg as somewhere desirable to live.
Research published in the academic journal The Conversation in October 2018, showed Brexit had already harmed EU and non-EU exports. “For both UK exports to the EU and those to non-EU countries, we found a clear and consistent story: from the moment of the vote, British exports fall strongly behind the projected growth had there been no Brexit vote. This suggests that, through the fall in the pound, the UK started pricing its exports much more cheaply (in terms of dollars), but found few extra buyers, other than those we would have already expected, so the volume of exports moved in line with trade between our neighbours, but they were worth less due to the fall in sterling.”
An FT report puts it even more starkly: “The Brexit vote two years ago has damaged the UK economy, as a weaker pound has squeezed household incomes and uncertainty has hit investment. On that, economists from all sides agree – despite having their differences over the extent of the damage and whether the harm will intensify.
Our own Igniyte research makes very clear how negative press and social media and other content affects confidence in brands and businesses of all kinds, including Brand Britain.
The Igniyte Reputation Report 2018 reveals that one in three brands admit that negative content is damaging their business. The threat from media coverage is growing with almost half (46 per cent) of all brands/businesses concerned about the power of negative press, with another quarter (26 per cent) saying it’s yet another worry for them going forward. For 1 in 20 brands, negative content has already cost them more than £50,000. Other key issues include poor reviews, social media posts and negative content posted by competitors. As a result, 95 per cent of UK businesses surveyed by Igniyte are taking preventative action. Something Brand Britain really needs to do, but when is the right time to do so?
Timing could well be everything.
The Reputation Institute’s 2018 Country RepTrak® report, an annual study of nations’ reputations, found that in 2018 the UK ranked 16th, climbing 2 spots since 2017 showing that, initially, post the referendum result, the UK’s reputation among the G8 dropped. But in 2018 it started moving upwards. Internally the UK had a lift in 2017 and a significant drop in 2018.
Wherever you look there’s conflicting information.
Repairing the damage of the negative Brexit headlines and changing the narrative around Brexit will be a hard slog and near on impossible to do until post Brexit. Whatever that looks like and whenever it happens. This is where the frustrations lie for the public and business owners, in the lack of power to influence outcome and perception.
When the online Brexit commentary is as ramped up as it is right now – by the hour, sometimes minute – people are struggling to be heard. And it’s the public who help shape UK plc, that will ultimately help to redefine its reputation (and politics of course, but let’s put that aside and look at what we can influence and control).
The positive indicators
Despite some of the more sensational press headlines, as far as Brand Britain is concerned, the situation isn’t all bad. Quite the opposite. According to a 2018 report from Brand Finance, the combined value of Britain’s top 150 brands actually rose by three per cent last year in 2018, hitting £254 billion. In the same year quintessentially British brand, Fortnum & Mason saw domestic sales rise by 23 per cent.
While Chief Executive, Ewan Venters, expressed concern about Brexit – arguing that uncertainty was damaging Brand Britain – it certainly sees that the market here in the UK is performing well, perhaps signaling the start of a new revenue stream. Many emerging markets are unlikely to be affected by Brexit – or see the situation as damaging Brand Britain at all. A Barclays study bears this out. Looking at reactions to the Made in UK label, researchers found it was extremely favourable in China, India, UAE, and Qatar.
Their reports suggest that labeling products with ‘Made in UK’ is a huge selling point and contributes to sales worth £3.45 billion in the Middle East and China – up from £2.1 billion in 2014. And while the value of UK exports to the EU fell between 2011 and 2016 (from £243 billion to £236 billion), exports to the US rose by more than 26 per cent.
How do we repair, or recreate a new Brand Britain post Brexit?
So, can we salvage or repair the damage? The simple answer is yes. But, doing it is not so simple. To a large extent, we need to remind the world what Brand Britain is. Despite being on a disastrous political road, our British business identity and core values remain the same.
Accentuating these and showing that we are indeed still open for business is important. As is the business community coming together and presenting a strong and unified identity. We need to start engaging the media with stories of opportunity, success, and progress.
Brand Britain needs to replace – or at the very least start to repair division with an outward-facing vision of unity.
Financial stability and trust always influence nations’ reputations. Other characteristics do too, including those that allow you to fulfill the pursuit of happiness, beautiful landscapes, friendly citizens and progressive and ethical policies. In fact, progressive policies and commonly held values and narratives are cited also by commentators as the reasons Sweden and Norway have such strong reputations.
And forging a new reputation for Brand Britain is about creating a balance between reality and perception. The UK is beautiful and historic, innovative and progressive in many ways. But that isn’t the image that comes to mind when you think of the UK right now. Its Brexit, May, politics, uncertainty, confusion and a loss of power and voice. Our beauty, our identity, our strength and potential are being drowned out by all the Brexit noise. That’s what’s defining our reputation.
Other nations have recovered from far more serious reputational damage and Brand Britain can too.
Creativity and passion remain prized traits – and carry positive reputation. Amongst the gloomy stats in the 2018 WPP report, Virgin boss and British businessman Richard Branson, was named one of the world’s most admired CEOs. Calling on the services of these corporate leaders is another way the public and business community can help Brand Britain rise from the shadow of Brexit and show the world that Brand Britain is still a force to be reckoned with – and something we can all be proud of.