To catch a new glimpse of an old country, walk into Dixons, Great Britain's largest electronics retailer. A few years ago, the chain was so uncomfortable with its identity that it even tried to disguise its Britishness; it called its house brand Matsui — a lame attempt to sound Japanese. But on this Wednesday afternoon, the Dixons store near London's Oxford Circus exudes a different attitude. Young couples eye personal computers. Pagers hum on the hips of the hip. And a clerk hands out the store's latest marketing gambit: CD-ROMs that offer free Internet access. Queuing up politely for this cyberswag is a collection of Brits — many races, several accents, equal numbers of women and men — that defies the stereotype of a stale, pale, male kingdom.
Something's up in merry old England. For the past year, Great Britain has been trying to "rebrand" itself. Culturally adrift and economically uncertain, one of the world's most powerful nations has borrowed from the world of business to reshape its national identity. The effort hasn't always been formal or systematic. It has sometimes been comical. And it has definitely been controversial. Advocates say that rebranding Britain is smart business for a modern country. Detractors say that it's slick and dirty spin-doctoring, unworthy of a great nation. But on one thing all sides agree: The man who forced the idea into the national conversation is Geoff Mulgan.
Earlier this decade, Mulgan, now 37, founded a think tank called Demos. Within a few years, Demos rocketed from obscurity to prominence — fueled by a stream of books and pamphlets that challenged the nation's conventional political wisdom. Then, in 1997, Mulgan and Demos researcher Mark Leonard published a book, "Britain?", that advanced the think tank's most provocative argument yet: that the UK could rebuild itself by rebranding itself. "We have spent most of this century in relative decline, after ending the last century as the top nation in the world," Mulgan says. "That left us with a heavy legacy. We had created a set of institutions that had served us well in the industrial economy. But those old ways of thinking were preventing us from moving into the future."
According to Demos's research, customers around the world considered British products to be fusty and of poor quality. Foreign companies viewed Great Britain as an island that time forgot — stuck in the past, hostile to free trade, riven by labor disputes. And potential tourists stayed away, believing that they would encounter lousy weather and crummy meals served by haughty hosts.
In fact, the country was on its way to becoming something altogether different — a hub of fashion and design, a destination for entrepreneurial immigrants, and one of the leading information-technology centers in Europe. But the nation's image had not yet caught up with this new reality. And a series of high-profile events had tarnished what remained of Britain's positive image. Hong Kong left the British Empire. Princess Diana died, and the monarchy came under fire for its remoteness. "The British myth was coming into question," Mulgan says. "A lot of people were feeling a need to rethink what their identity was."
Mulgan, who once worked as a concert promoter, addressed that yearning with intellectual force and public-relations panache. It was out with "Rule Britannia" and in with what was fast becoming known as "Cool Britannia."
Behind the catchy slogan was a solid idea — that of what Mulgan calls a nation's "identity premium." Each year, the UK spends about £800 million (roughly $1.3 billion) on promoting itself overseas. But without a coherent strategy to guide that spending, Mulgan believes, the money buys little more than a trickle of disconnected messages, which are scarcely noticed in the global ocean of information. What a country should do is devise a marketing strategy that builds an attractive brand. Several countries have already figured out the rules of this new game. Spain has rebranded itself — in part by using Joan Miro's bright and lively "Espana" painting as a national logo and as a symbol of the nation's post-Franco optimism. Ireland, long seen as a sleepy land of pastures and pubs, has recast itself as a high-tech "Celtic tiger." Cities have been in this game for years. That's why so many of us love New York.
But Mulgan argues forcibly that the benefits of branding go beyond the realm of travel and tourism. When a nation builds an attractive brand, it creates a patina — an "identity premium" — that attaches to businesses operating out of that country. If the brand called UK is strong, then an identifiably British design group (for example) will attract lots of clients. And that company will be able to charge as much as design firms based in other nations do — plus an identity premium for being British. Because branding can generate real economic advantages for a nation, Mulgan argues, a modern government not only must protect the nation's shores; it must also boost the nation's brand equity.
The Brand Called Mulgan
Number 10 Downing Street is almost creepily understated. A preapproved visitor can enter without showing identification or passing through a metal detector — which makes the place much different from its counterpart at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The lobby is empty and subdued — more like the entryway of an upscale bed-and-breakfast than like the anteroom to the office of the leader of a nuclear power. Heels click. Clocks tick. The heart of British power beats quietly.
This is where Geoff Mulgan now works. He's an adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, a member of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit, and the Labour government's point man on issues like family policy, cities, and welfare reform. He functions as an aorta of sorts — carrying ideas and initiatives from the prime minister to the rest of the government and back again. Gap-toothed and freshly scrubbed, Mulgan looks to an American visitor like a cross between Austin Powers and Richie Cunningham. And although he no longer spends an enormous amount of time managing the ideas about rebranding that he helped to develop, he sees his current work as inextricably linked to that effort.
For example, he believes that it's extremely dangerous for Britain to be seen as the home of a sluggish welfare state and a disgruntled population — an image that he calls "the Full Monty picture of unemployment, with a few riots mixed in." He argues that moving people from welfare rolls to rewarding work is not just a moral cause: In an information economy, it's a practical necessity. "To do otherwise would be like leaving your most valuable assets to rot in the rain," he says. There's another link between rebranding and rebuilding. Both involve what may be the most difficult task in either business or government: changing a culture. And a culture, says Mulgan, "does not change with the flick of a switch."
The slow pace of government occasionally grates on Mulgan. A young man in a hurry, he is annoyingly accomplished for someone of such tender years. He's won a fellowship at MIT, earned a PhD from the University of Westminster, written six books, run the office of Gordon Brown (now Britain's chancellor of the exchequer), taught at the University of London, worked for London's city administration, and organized pro-Labour concert tours by rock bands and comedians. The think tank he founded has been the main intellectual wellspring of the Blair government.
Yet he's hardly the club-hopping trendoid that some might expect. Although newly married, he works almost nonstop. Comfortably situated at one of the world's most famous addresses, he spends at least one day a week outside of London, visiting job centers and checking on the progress of programs that he oversees. "I don't believe you can trust what the system is telling you unless you check it out yourself," he says. Perhaps most telling, sniffs one former colleague, "Geoff doesn't even own an Armani suit."
Identity Meets Reality
Truth be told, "Cool Britannia" made its first appearance in the freezer case. Ben & Jerry's gave that name to a product — a concoction of vanilla ice cream, strawberries, and chocolate-covered shortbread — that it launched in Great Britain in 1996. (The product is no longer available in the UK.) Which is one reason why Cool Britannia, and the idea of rebranding in general, are easy to lampoon.
Another reason can be found at a place called Pharmacy. Located in the nicely yuppified London neighborhood of Notting Hill Gate, Pharmacy is thought by some to be the very embodiment of Cool Britannia. In the downstairs bar area, the walls are lined with glass cabinets full of pharmaceutical boxes. Waiters wear surgical scrubs and serve such drinks as Prozac Fizz. Upstairs, at the front of the dining room, sits a model of a molecule like the ones you'd see in a chemistry class, except that it's as large as a rhinoceros. The walls appear to be papered with pages from the Physician's Desk Reference, complete with life-size photos and quick descriptions of all manner of legal drugs. ("We'd like a table for two, please. Do you have something between the Tagamet and the Thorazine?")
If Pharmacy really represents the future — of rebranding or of Britain — then that country is on the brink of a long national headache. Mulgan agrees: "You can't fool people with glossy brochures or new buildings. You cannot sustainably change an identity unless it fits with reality." And in reality, a no-steak, all-sizzle place like Pharmacy embodies almost the opposite of the real challenges that the UK confronts. Great Britain today has plenty of steak. What it needs is a certain kind of sizzle. The country is the fifth-largest trading nation in the world, with higher per-capita exports than either the United States or Japan. Britain's film and fashion industries are in the midst of a renaissance — leaving a deep imprint on style and culture worldwide. Britain has become one of the world's leading makers of computer games. New restaurants and various ethnic cuisines have replaced the country's once-grim parade of fish-and-chips shops.
Instead of trying cynically to manufacture an image to cover up an ugly reality, Britain is furiously trying to change its homely image to reflect a reality that is genuinely attractive. But even that effort makes lots of Brits uneasy. They're uncomfortable with talk of changing the government letterhead or issuing new stamps, although neither change has come close to happening. Some view rebranding as an exercise in elitism. (Political commentator Ben Elton said recently, "It's no good going on about our great designers, if everything they design is made in China. Jobs are cool, not some bloke in a dress getting applauded by Naomi Campbell.") Others consider the idea of rebranding to be superficial, vacuous, and unseemly. After all, it's hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher intoning, "The United Kingdom — strong enough for a man, but made for a woman." And many in Britain's chattering class have taken issue with the very idea that a country can be treated as a brand.
Mulgan's response to the scoffers? "They tend to be people who never read a history book," he scoffs back. "Go back 200 years, and you'll see that Britishness was an invented identity." Take the Union Jack, for example. It didn't just grow from the soil; it didn't even become the symbol on the British flag until 1801. The same point can be made about the United States. The American flag, Uncle Sam, "The Star-Spangled Banner" — all were consciously designed to "brand" the new republic. The larger point is obvious once it sinks in: National identities don't emerge from nature; people create them.
For much of this century, countries forged national identities that were largely military: A nation was something that you fought and died for. Today national identities have become less demanding and more varied. But at their core, they are now heavily economic in focus. Fast ships and smart bombs are less important to a nation's well-being than fast companies and smart workers. Reengineering reality is necessary — but far from sufficient. Shrewd nations also refashion their identities.
Geoff Mulgan was one of the first people to figure all of this out. He knows the limits of relics like "Rule Britannia," Britain's unofficial national anthem — a military hymn whose refrain goes, "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves/Britons never will be slaves." A new Britain requires a new song. Mulgan wants to help Britain compose it.
Sidebar: Stories Of The Future
"Identities consist of more than images, flags, logos and ceremonials," reads "Britain?." "Successful national identities are also shaped around compelling stories that make sense of where a nation has come from and where it is going." The storytelling challenge is as relevant to the future of companies as it is to the future of countries. "Britain?" lays out six stories that describe the country's future without abandoning its past.
Hub UK: The UK has always been a central passageway of goods, people, and ideas. That's even truer today. English is a world language. Britain's time zone allows its inhabitants to talk to Asia in the morning and to North America in the afternoon. Heathrow is the world's busiest airport for international passengers.
Creative Island: From Shakespeare to Helen Fielding, from Handel to the Beatles, Great Britain has been a world leader in both high art and pop culture.
United Colours of Britain: The country is now home to people of nearly every race and religion.
Open for Business: Always a nation of shopkeepers, Great Britain is updating that tradition for the new economy. Eight out of the ten most profitable European retailers are British.
Britain as Silent Revolutionary: "Far from being a nation of unchanging tradition, Britain is a prolific inventor of new forms of organisation and new ways of running society." Consider, for example, parliaments, post offices, and privatization.
The Nation of Fair Play: Brits pride themselves on what they call a "sense of cricket": fairness, charity, manners, support for the underdog. A new Britain can still adhere to the nation's old values.
Daniel H. Pink (firstname.lastname@example.org), formerly an aide to U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich and Vice President Al Gore, is a Fast Company Contributing Editor based in Washington, DC. You can contact Geoff Mulgan by email (email@example.com).
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/March 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.