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What does it really mean to be British? To you, it may be the eye roll you share with a fellow commuter when your morning train is “held to regulate service”. 

To others, it’s rushing towards the steamy windows of a busy pub on a Friday evening. And not forgetting the incessant need to talk about the weather.

Championing this idea of what it means to be British feels essential as we live in a country of widening divisions. Because, for now at least, with one B word must come another; Brexit. Looming on the horizon like a lingering nightmare, no matter which way you voted. 

After the campaign launched, many thought it took a blatant anti-Brexit stance, something the brand was quick to deny.

But this piece isn’t about Brexit. Well, not entirely. It’s about how British people are choosing to form, celebrate and promote a changing British identity. Which in turn means brands are too. 

Above: Izzy Ashton, an editor at BITE.


No stranger to aligning themselves with certain societal outlooks, cultural attitudes and political stances, it wouldn’t be a surprise if brands never shut up about Brexit. Instead, it’s a subject made curious by its absence. Britishness? Yes. Brexit? Not so much.  

Whilst the country, and those living in it, is unsure of our fate, some brands are championing Britain and what it means to be diversely British. But many are going to great lengths to say their ads are not about Brexit, when the reality is that the two can no longer be mutually exclusive. These brands are busy writing love letters to a unified Britain they want us to recognise, even if we never really asked for it.

British Airways – Made by Britain

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First up, British Airways recruited a plane load of all-star passengers, from Olivia Coleman to Anthony Joshua, who the brand feels represent modern Britain and its values. The 100-year anniversary campaign from Ogilvy UK, Made In Britain [above] is a glittering declaration of love for the country delivered by British legends. It is unarguably a celebration of national pride but not, as the brand is at pains to point out, about the current political climate. 

HSBC said they wanted to emphasise how the country is open and connected, a statement which seems to, whether intentionally or not, carry Brexit-related undertones.

Hamish McVey, Head of Brands and Marketing at British Airways, said of the campaign; “We’ve let the politicians deal with the politics. We’re steering clear of that.” But is this the right move for a brand that’s always predicated itself on the values of travel and open-mindedness, especially when it comes to other cultures? It feels as though the brand is negating politics while championing Britain, a move that many will view with frustration. 

HSBC – HSBC: Global Citizen

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A similar, ostensibly non-Brexit related, campaign came from HSBC UK and J. Walter Thompson in We Are Not an Island [above]. The campaign hinges our identity on our global citizenship by focussing on those things that make us British, things we owe to the wider world; we drink Colombian coffee, watch American films, enjoy Scandinavian flat-pack furniture.

After the campaign launched, many thought it took a blatant anti-Brexit stance, something the brand was quick to deny.

“We are part of something far, far bigger,” the ad tells us. And maybe, as a country, as individuals, we are and have always been. But this line could also be used to describe the campaign itself, especially considering the timing of its launch at the start of this year. 

LNER – This Is Our LNER

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HSBC said they wanted to emphasise how the country is open and connected, a statement which seems to, whether intentionally or not, carry Brexit-related undertones. But their stance raises a question; should brands choose to embrace a point of view, particularly a political one, or risk becoming creatively ineffective? 

HSBC’s campaign also homed in on the strength and importance of particular regional identities. This regionality is celebrated in LNER’s spot #TrackRecord [above]; a poem spoken in the various accents and dialects heard on the train route between London and Aberdeen. 

Our differences are important. And the media has a role in depicting our diverse and contradictory characteristics.

The voiceover’s collective, broad accents show the unique worlds beyond our capital. This campaign’s timing feels important because, while there has always been undoubtable diversity within our nation, there is also now an enormous disconnect between urban and rural, capital and regional communities. 

It’s interesting that brands are choosing this moment to celebrate what it means to be British. Especially at a time when there is the question of what Britain is or might become without the EU. Are brands issuing a swan song to our last days of European identity, or celebrating the fact that even outside of the EU, our national identity is one to be proud of? 

Brands are creatively celebrating our quirks, differences and downright fabulous weirdness. But is it enough?

Whatever the answer, our national identity finds itself in a state of flux. For now, however, I feel that it’s the remit of brands to help us advocate for and recognise what it means to be British. We’ve seen this in Wonderhood Studios’ ad for Comic Relief, Wise Words [below], which focusses on what unites us as a nation, despite our divisive political climate. In it, we see a grandfather speaking words of wisdom to his grandchild as he switches off the negativity broadcast from his radio. It ends on the line that, “We all need each other”.

Comic Relief – Wise Words

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Our differences are important. And the media has a role in depicting our diverse and contradictory characteristics. Because, if difference is championed in creativity; in the images we see and the messages we hear, that thinking will slowly trickle down onto our streets, into workplaces and schools.

Brands are creatively celebrating our quirks, differences and downright fabulous weirdness. But is it enough? Should brands, in many cases those who’ll take a big hit when Brexit’s trade impositions come into force, take more of a stance? Are ads enough? Especially ones readily disassociated from having anything to do with what’s on everyone’s minds. Whatever the intention, these campaigns are love letters to a nation in turmoil. 

Signed, sealed, delivered? Not quite yet.

Izzy Ashton is an editor for BITE, Creativebrief’s daily editorial insight into global marketing trends and the cultural movements driving them.

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