Branding Britain – The Challenge of Brexit

By Matt Dallisson, 30/01/2018

On Thursday, Signium invited a diverse group of 30 business leaders together for an informal event over drinks to discuss the impact of the Brexit vote and look at ‘What Next’! Interestingly, a straw poll of the room gave a 2/3 majority to Remain, a rather different result to the country as a whole!

We invited a panel of four to answer questions and invite debate – Jane Bristow, until recently UK CEO at a division of French services giant Sodexo; Anup Chib, Chairman of an international nutraceuticals business and a former senior executive at GSK; Sarah Doyle, Brand Director at private equity backed retailer EAT and Gurdeep Grewal, SVP and General Manager of Global Logic.

The panel was asked a few questions focusing on the challenges and positives of Brexit. Questions from the floor and then a broader discussion followed. Four immediate issues were identified:

  1. The Brexit vote has increased the level of business uncertainty and perceived risk, with the immediate implications including reviews of existing investment plans, greater scrutiny of business cases for major decisions and a slowing down of decision-making. It will be some time, months if not years, before business leaders will be able to plan again with some degree of certainty for the future.
  2. Costs for many businesses will rise where the devaluation of Sterling impacts raw material costs; this is leading to a search for domestic alternatives but also to a recognition that price rises are inevitable, leading to the challenge of increasing prices to the businesses own customers and consumers. The silver lining in this for many UK-based businesses who can control their costs is that domestically sources materials will be highly sought after and there will be real opportunities for increased sales to tourists and for more competitively priced exports.
  3. There is concern amongst EU workers based in the UK about their futures. Suddenly many perceive the UK to be a less welcoming place with their right to remain no longer guaranteed. This is a leadership and management issue for some businesses who employ many of these types of worker, for example in the retailing and catering industries.
  4. The media loves a bad news story. The group felt that the vast majority of stories in the news were focusing on negative issues, helping fuel a culture of uncertainty and negativity which if it continued would further impact on business and consumer confidence.

But there are opportunities as well. Several ideas were suggested to try to take advantage of the climate that has been created. Interestingly, much debate centred on whose role it was to try to define this climate, whether government, the business community or the media. Suggestions made included:

  1. Promote good news stories to create a more confident climate. There are positives already evident,ranging from the increase in tourism to the UK to the growth in sales of luxury goods made in the UK or the increased competitiveness of UK businesses competing in overseas markets.
  2. Invest now in promoting Britain as a tourist destination, not just London but for the benefit of the whole of the UK.
  3. Focus on things that Britain does well and invest now in those sectors. This could be anything from Scotch Whisky to regional cheeses in food and drink. It could also be in science and technology, in our higher education sector, in some areas of manufacturing and in one of our globally recognised national characteristics, the ability to innovate.

The discussion evolved rapidly into a debate about two things; firstly the UK’s brand positioning in the global marketplace. What does the UK stand for on the global stage? If any concerted attempt is to be made to communicate positively about doing business in and with the UK, then we need to be clear what we are all about. And secondly about leadership; who should be grasping the opportunity to define the messages and deliver them – is this a political role or a business one.

So – a very interesting and though-provoking evening. What are your views on what Brand Britain stands for and who do you think should be the cheerleader for Britain on the global stage. Please get in touch and let us know….

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By Matthew Dallisson, who advises companies to find, attract and keep great leaders with insights drawn from over a decade in executive search and leadership consulting.