In the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, there was a notable uptick in British-focused branding. In 2018 Tesco launched its ‘Britain-first’ budget supermarket Jack’s, proudly bedecked in red, white and blue and peppered with Union Jacks.
In 2019, Vauxhall paid homage to the great British van driver (while also admitting 1,000 UK jobs were at risk at its Cheshire assembly plant if there is a no deal Brexit) with its Great Britvan campaign. The brand says the film took inspiration from the Rudyard Kipling poem If and Churchill’s The Few speech, although strangely has now scrubbed the ad from its YouTube. In the same year HSBC insisted that Britain is not an island, and streaming service Britbox launched in the UK.
The obsession with Britishness hasn’t stopped in 2020 either, which saw Waitrose invite us all to ‘Pick for Britain’, and Lloyds unveil its bucolic Forever Forwards campaign, replete with imagery of steam trains, fishermen and lush, emerald green fields. To put the cherry on the cake, news recently came out that Downing Street had attempted to put the Union Jack on injection kits of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
While this has been going on, other cultural figures have highlighted the Union Jack’s loaded status, perhaps most memorably Stormzy – who wore a stab vest emblazoned with a monochrome version of the flag, designed by Banksy, for his 2019 Glastonbury performance. His message was a far cry from how the flag was perceived in 1997, when Geri Haliwell sported her now-iconic Union Jack dress on stage at the Brit Awards.
There’s no question that the traditional visual signifiers of Britishness have become highly charged post-Brexit. And the debate about what national identity means continues to rage, as we’ve seen in the backlash to the Sainsbury’s Christmas campaign, which drew racist responses from some for featuring a Black family. Is nationality a dubious subject for brands to tackle? According to Droga5 chief strategy officer Dylan Williams, it’s murky water to wade into.