question of the week
What makes a 'fabric of the nation' brand?
A hoary old ad cliché or something of growing relevance? We find out
23 October 2023
It's impossible to avoid the clichés of Britishness when it comes to writing about its intersection with advertising (look - we've even done it ourselves with the image above).
Red telephone boxes, rolling hills, the music of Elgar, marching bands - you know the sort of thing from countless previous features written around key national events like the London Olympics, the Jubilee and the Coronation.
But... there are some brands that do have an intrinsic Britishness - not necessarily from the ad tropes they use at choice national moments but because they are embedded in the national psyche.
McVitie's, which has just launched a masterbrand campaign from TBWA\London using a number of British icons (including Sir Trevor McDonald), is one of these.
We can all rattle off a number of brands that fit into this category - they're mostly FMCG (Bisto, Marmite, Cadbury, Yorkshire Tea etc) with a few other heritage types thrown in, for example Marks & Spencer and Mini. And most are also evocative of our childhoods or have an emotional connection with family who are no longer with us.
They can be called 'fabric of the nation' brands (even if their ownership is now part of a faceless global industrial rather than that of a Victorian philanthropist).
But what does being a fabric of the nation brand mean? What values does this imbue? And how do you communicate this in a contemporary way? We try and find out:
Matt Waksman, head of strategy, advertising, Ogilvy UK
There has never been a stronger ‘fabric of the nation’ brand than Princess Diana. How did she get there? Her strategy in her own words: “I knew what my job was, it was to go out, meet people and love them.” When we think about how to build fabric of the nation brands, we often fall into the trap of coming up with different ways we can make the nation love us.
But brands need to take a more human approach: how can they go out, love the whole nation, and then receive love in return?
Indeed, successful fabric of the nation brands make the most generous lovers. Some have helped navigate through culture, such as Dove giving women the confidence to fight back against toxic beauty standards. Others help audiences see the lighter side of life; Paddy Power has spent ten years showing up unexpectedly to take the piss. Both have their place.
Today we can love the nation more frequently - and in more places - than ever before. And this can be done through experiences, culture, collabs, influence, and of through targeted and mass reach comms. If you want to build a fabric of the nation brand, start by thinking what you can do for the nation - and let there be no limit to your love.
Wayne Newton, senior marketing director, Walkers
Walkers has been a popular household brand in Britain for 75 years, and this year we proudly celebrated our platinum anniversary in the knowledge that we are Britain’s most loved crisp. We’re honoured to have become a part of the British cultural landscape and a snacking favourite for so many people during this period.
Ever since our humble beginnings, we’ve understood the importance of tapping into British culture, to stay relevant and meet the needs of consumers. At the heart of Walkers is a clear sense of how the nation’s sense of humour can be a force for good. Through our brand, we aim to raise smiles through bite-size moments of joy and levity, whether that is through our great tasting crisps, light-hearted comms or eye-catching activations.reinforced our Britishness.
Our most recent campaign – 'We love potatoes so you can love Walkers' – seeks to strengthen the nation’s love for the brand, whilst reminding crisp fans of the care that goes into growing our 100 per cent British potatoes, through Walkers’ Sustainable Farming Programme. The TVC captures our quintessential Britishness, celebrating everything from our humble spuds, to the real British farming partners that grow them.
Ben Worden, head of planning, Wunderman Thompson
There seem to be lots of brands out there that believe they are part of the ‘fabric of the nation’, just like there are lots of people out there who believe that they are quite cool. But how many really are?
Many of the iconic British brands that anyone answering this question 25 years ago might have cited have lost their swagger, their distinctiveness shaved off in the windtunnel of multinational ownership, often literally.
The good news is that a new breed of fabric of the nation brands is starting to emerge.
When we say ‘fabric of the nation’ I suspect what we really mean is three things:
They’re meaningful to lots of people: They say and do things that get the nation talking. They know what makes us laugh, or they know what makes us cry. They understand what brings us together, or they understand what divides us, and they know how to have a point of view on it.
They connect with the whole nation, not just London: London is great, don’t get me wrong. But 87 per cent of people don’t live there. The test of a fabric of the nation brand is what people say about it in Swindon or Newport or Wakefield or the Ribble Valley. Some people in adland don’t like this, but if you work in this industry and you don’t realise that Greggs is a fabric of the nation brand, you should probably be doing something else.
They embrace modern Britain: There was a time when fabric of the nation meant “nostalgia” but I suspect those days are over now, and I personally think this can only be a good thing. Fabric of the nation brands need to show that they have a point of view that means something to the society we live in today, not some bygone era.
Andy Jex, chief creative officer, TBWA\London
You don’t need to explain what a 'fabric of the nation brand' is as there aren’t many of them. But if it feels like it lives in the past you need to make it relevant to today.
For McVitie’s, rather than do campaigns for individual products, we took a masterbrand approach and created the ‘True Originals’ platform. Biscuits is an interesting category because there are hundreds of copycat own-labels so you have to invest in the brand and create an icon.
People feel strongly about fabric of the nation brands – for example, they take them on holiday. With McVitie’s the rational messaging is that we had to engage in an emotional connection.
We created 10 pages of ‘true original’ metaphors for the icons. They had to have been around long enough but – like Elvis and the hedgehog [a metaphor for Sonic] they didn’t need to be British as they’d feel cliched and a bit Brexity. But we made up for that in the casting and the production – Elvis (known here as ‘The King’) is clearly shot in Blackpool. So it was a modern approach to Britishness.
Jason Cobbold, CEO, BMB
Brands being an integral part of the fabric of British life is in my opinion a bit of an overstatement. One can argue that tea and biscuits, Saturday afternoon football and the Nine O'Clock News might lay some claim to this. Marmite and Walkers a little less so. That said, there are brands that do seem to signal Britishness - from our curious customs, to our long traditions and our studied reserve. Some brands do make it into our culture, and yes they also help make our culture.
If the challenge for brand builders is to solidify and deepen meaning, having a rich connection - real or attitudinal - to Britain strikes me as a good thing. Brands like Burberry show how Britishness can be an endless riff, and how the most traditional can be re-invented and modernised with little touches of irony.
The rough must of course be taken with the smooth. Being British can also suck, but it’s better to be something than nothing.