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The Great British Brand Hunt

By Aaron Toal, PhD Candidate - January 2020

‘Made in Britain’ … Union Jack labels … TV advertisements showing a product’s heritage. Why do brands incorporate origin information, either subtly or obviously into product advertising or packaging? One answer is found in the country-of-origin effect, although the behavioural and emotional responses that are evoked by brands capitalising on this heuristic are not unanimous across consumers.

As more consumer goods companies pledge their allegiance to Brand Britain in the wake of a changing societal movement, the scope of this marketing activity and the consequences on consumers draws some interesting results.

Putting a spell on you, in aisle two

The country-of-origin effect, or nationality bias, is a strong psychological evaluation that explains how consumers’ attitudes, perceptions and purchasing decisions are influenced by a products’ country-of-origin labelling. This informational cue often evokes strong stereotyping of a country, its people or product attributes. Individuals with preferences of products from a particular country is known as consumer affinity, whereas avoidance is consumer animosity. Consumers may prefer products from their home country too, which can be seen as supporting domestic jobs and the economy; in this regard, the purchase of foreign goods can be viewed as immoral and even unpatriotic.

Cognitively, the country-of-origin is a cue for product quality. For lesser-known brands, the ‘made-in’ label transforms into the brand itself, often taken advantage of by piggybacking on the success of other products manufactured in that country (think of Swedish craftsmanship or Belgium beer). The effect becomes strongest with high-involvement purchase decisions (i.e. luxury products), however in more low-involvement decisions like FMCGs, the country-of-origin is shown to have more influence than brand knowledge.

Affectively, biases can be formed by emotional associations through direct experiences including travel or indirect experiences like movies or education. Consumers link certain products and brands with feelings of social status or lifestyle, with the country-of-origin acting as a self-expression attribute (think of Italian leather goods or Swiss-made watches). Consumer animosity and affinity are also important affective constructs as consumers may avoid purchasing a product manufactured in a country where they have a deep feeling of animosity (think of trade wars, actual wars or other political controversies).

Biscuit means biscuit

With Brexit dominating and dividing the nation, and organisations switching their marketing campaigns to promote Brand Britain, The Great British Brand Hunt, an ambitious data collection activity, was undertaken in 2019 to identify the scope of British associations being used to market products and the impact this may have on consumers. Participants were invited to take photos on their smartphone of any product, brand or advertisement featuring associations of Britain within their design, packaging or marketing.

615 photos were received across a multitude of product categories stretching as far as the imagination, from mushy peas to multi-surface spray, biscuits to beer, financial services to home furniture, dustpans to dog poop bags; all incorporating Britain somewhere. By removing those products displaying their origin out of a requirement by law (such as meat, wine, fruit and vegetables – although there were significant variations on how origin information was displayed within these categories too) classifications could be made into the type of brands, language and the significance of country information.

A main finding was that entrepreneurial or rural brands tended to incorporate more visual and descriptive origin information into their product’s package design, such as the Union Jack or its colour scheme. Products identified included gin (the UK is famous internationally for its quality gin), chutneys and conserves (typical British produce) and baked goods (think afternoon tea). Furthermore, a variety of independent traders also used the region of manufacture within their design too. For example, tea from Yorkshire, chutneys from Cambridgeshire or baked goods from the Lake District, transcending into the micro ‘region-of-origin’ effect.

Terminology was also catalogued. The standard ‘Made in…’ variations were used aplenty, but smaller traders expanded upon these terms to reinforce and embellish their origin, with descriptions like “Established in the fields of Great Britain” or “A real taste of the countryside” or more emotive language such as “Lovingly British” or “Proudly made in…”

Consequences of Union Jackery

So, you’re a new start-up selling lovingly crafted, good British products and want to capitalise on the country-of-origin to appeal to British consumers, but there are cautions.

Remember that Brexit brought to the forefront extremely divisive attitudes and opinions within Britain. Brands’ association with provenance post-Brexit is divided. Experts caution that brands with overtly British values or low-key nuances may also associated with particular ideologies, with warnings made of incorporating the red, white and blue colour scheme or symbols like the Union Jack, as found in the Great British Brand Hunt, given how often these are hijacked by Leave or nationalistic campaigns. Participants of the Hunt, whilst positive of how these imageries can evoke feelings of pride or a sense of supporting British workers and the economy, also signalled their concerns of overtly using political or nationalistic imagery and the connotations this engenders in the current environment.

Overall, the country-of-origin is a powerful cue that can incite certain psychological assessments and behavioural biases. However, with the Brexit debate tainting the once previous reliance of using national symbols and colours to advertise home produce, how brands choose to communicate their provenance needs to be carefully considered and balanced. With society more divided than ever into what it means to be British, so too are the beliefs of what it means to be branded British.

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