Can the GREAT campaign lead Britain’s soft-power drive post-Brexit?

Born in the depths of austerity, the GREAT Britain campaign has survived successive governments and referendums. Can it now lead Britain’s soft-power drive post-Brexit? Stuart Rock takes a look into the anatomy of the campaign.

Throughout Whitehall and in Downing Street, and across British embassies and high commissions, there was one big head scratcher in 2011: how to take advantage of the 2012 opportunity?

The London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee appeared to present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Up to four billion people would be watching events in the UK.

It may have looked like an open goal but it most certainly wasn’t.

The summer of 2011 had been tarnished by images of riots. And George Osborne’s austerity drive had kicked off, so the Treasury was not in the mood to entertain large-scale expenditure. There were concerns about the impact of the Olympics too; a dip in tourism was a well-known
effect of holding the Games.

And how would this ‘once in a lifetime’ moment be communicated? In heading up international trade missions, the prime minister had already seen how a crowd of different government departments and quasigovernmental organisations jostled and pitched their particular messages about Britain. This was reflected in a flotilla of plans being put forward for 2012. They had to be unified.

A campaign was needed. But use of the Olympic brand was out of the question. Maybe what was required, mused Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s adviser at the time, was something like the ‘I heart NY’ slogan, which could bring many strands together. The advertising agency Mother was called in. So, too, was Conrad Bird, a former international brand-building executive then serving in the Foreign Office.

Together, the brand gurus looked at the efforts of other countries that had hosted major sporting events. Germany had run a campaign that combined tourism and investment messages in the year around the World Cup. Canada had done something similar when hosting the Winter Olympics. Other nations had run longer-lasting campaigns to promote tourism. No country had devised a long-running campaign to communicate numerous messages.

The approach eventually adopted was lifted from the classic corporate marketing playbook. Target audiences were identified. The aim: to understand the right audiences and target them in the right way with the right messages to change their behaviour. The focus was to be on four areas: trade, investment, tourism and education.

Take an ultra-high-net-worth Chinese entrepreneur, say: the campaign would want them to send their children to the UK, and then – as a tourist and a parent – to fly back and visit them regularly. They would also be a target for investing in the UK and as a potential purchaser of UK goods and services. Why not use one brand to reach such people?

It was a leap of faith to replace a number of separate campaigns with a single one. There were no previous metrics or exemplars to draw on. Nobody could say if the outcomes of a unified campaign would be better than the outcomes of, say, separate VisitBritain or British Council campaigns.

Making Britain GREAT again
‘Britain is GREAT’ was announced by David Cameron in New York in late 2011; the creative debut was made in early 2012. “This campaign is simple,” said the then PM. “There are so many great things about Britain and we want to send out the message loud and proud that this is a great place to do business, to invest, to study and to visit.”

While the campaign used the Union Jack, this was emphatically not a nation branding exercise; it was an economic programme designed to bring jobs and wealth to Britain, a campaign on behalf of Britain. And that mantra has never changed, says Conrad Bird, the director and ultimate brand guardian of the GREAT Britain campaign.

There were critics. “I would certainly be cautious before putting money into a campaign like this because it could be interpreted as bragging,” marketing commentator Patrick Barwise told the Daily Mail. Monocle, that watchful arbiter of style and soft power, deemed it “inane” and “sounding a bit desperate”.

The campaign also had to combat a variety of negative stereotypes around the world. When shown an image of Bodiam Castle, Brazilian focus groups deemed the blue skies fake, as the “sun never shines in the UK”. Chinese entrepreneurs saw the UK as a heritage backwater, thick with fog and full of men in bowler hats.

Some did indeed consider the campaign boastful. Wasn’t it just saying Britain is great? Bird had to reiterate his message: the campaign communicated that Britain has great features (culture, creativity, technology, countryside and so on) that would entice the audience to come here.

The GREAT team knew instinctively that getting behind a single strong brand was a good thing. The important time was when that instinct began to turn into data. Through overseas research panels, the team began to see differences between those who had and hadn’t come into contact with the campaign. There was, for example, an uptick in the levels of active consideration about visiting Britain. This crucial measurement is under constant watch. “Divide our target audiences into two cohorts: those who have come into contact with the brand and those who have not, and whether they are investors, CEOs, potential students or visitors. The difference between the two cohorts in our key markets will be anywhere between 10 and 18 points,” says Bird.

If year one was a leap of faith, born out of the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, the real challenge was to continue to make the case for the campaign. When, after 18 months, Bird’s team went to the Treasury, their pitch was not framed in terms of comms, branding or reputation, but measurable results. “The campaign would never have survived unless we’d been able to deliver measurable results year after year,” he says. “The money we’re given is taxpayer money that could pay for police or hospitals, so we have to be very serious about how we invest it. We must steward it into more money for the country.”

Over the years, Bird has had to make several cases for the continued funding of GREAT. In 2015, the National Audit Office praised the campaign as “meeting good practice from a brand communication perspective”. A second, unpublished audit has recently been conducted.

In the run-up to the 2016 SpendingReview, the campaign’s annual budget was raised to £60m and extended by four years. In return, GREAT has to generate £8bn. Public relations is “a very rich part of the mix”, says Bird. “We use PR assets to influence our audiences. When combined with advertising and digital campaigns, it’s very powerful.”

He warms to the theme. Aston Martin made a special GREAT model. En route to the GREAT Festival of Creativity in Shanghai, the car stopped in Tokyo, where Prince William disembarked from a GREAT-branded plane and stepped into it, captured by the local press. Aston Martin sales in Japan doubled in the next quarter. “That’s a win, win, win, and I get very excited about that,” says Bird.

The campaign is also strikingly visual. “Government can sometimes overuse words and underuse visuals,” says Bird. “ GREAT is very visual and proudly reclaims the Union Jack.”. The success of GREAT is all about the power of a brand as “an organising thought”, he says. “At the back of my mind was the idea you could build a proper, sustainable brand – not just for two years but for five or 20 – which navigates people clearly, wins respect and pulls together a whole effort.”

Will Brexit be GREAT?
The Britain in which GREAT was conceived seems a distant country.Since then, there have been referendums on Scottish independence and on leaving the EU, a new prime minister and two general elections. The data on effectiveness that Bird assiduously gathers has meant that this government campaign has managed to last through three parliaments and two prime ministers. “We have had a whole new group of ministers who were unfamiliar with the brand but who wholeheartedly support it. They get the fact that you have to stay with it,” he says.

When it kicked off, the nerve centre of the GREAT campaign was 10 Downing Street. Today the campaign is governed by a cross-government ministerial board, chaired by the secretary of state for international trade. A central, eight-strong team, based in the Department for International Trade (DIT), is headed by Bird. “DIT is a comfortable place for the GREAT brand to be,” says Bird, “and we still use the convening power of Number 10.”

And, when it comes to Brexit, Bird says that GREAT must maintain its focus on its key audiences. “We had to look at every one of our campaigns and test whether the proposition was still current and relevant. We dialled up on inward investment, as this focused on the great foreign direct investment opportunities available in the UK. We dialled up activities in countries such as Canada and Australia. The brand provides continuity in a time of change. It has been a strong flag for business to join. So GREAT has not been dented by Brexit but we have to work much harder and we face more challenges, so our tactics are changing to meet them.

“We will be more active in Europe as we’ve got a big job to do to remind the people of Europe – and these are big markets – that we have an enormous amount in common going forward, and that our connections go beyond politics.”

Other areas where we can expect to see more GREAT activity range from export finance (via UK Export Finance) to attracting students from India to adding new government departments to the campaign. A recent recruit is the Ministry of Justice, which is promoting British expertise in legal services. So there are a lot of drums left to bang. Stepping briskly (as a regular marathon runner should) through the corridors of the mighty Foreign Office building where he is based, Bird strikes an ebullient note.

“One of Britain’s favourite words may be ‘sorry’ but GREAT is all about confidence. We can’t apologise our way to international success.”

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