by Charlie Laidlaw
Companies stand or fall on the authenticity of their brands, with brand value an integral element in corporate and marketing strategy – the same is true of countries.
This is a pertinent observation ahead of Scotland’s independence referendum later this year. If Scotland does vote to go it alone, it is the value of the country’s brand that will sustain it – driving everything from inward tourism to international investment.
Of course, defining a national brand and its value to the economy is virtually impossible, as perceptions vary enormously. The Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index,which ranks countries against a number of criteria, offers some insight.
We are, of course, hotwired to think in shorthand. For example, think of Italy, and what do you associate it with? Pizza? Ferrari? Do you have a positive view on Italian manufacturing quality? Would you buy an Italian product against a competitor product from, say, France?
In some instances, the national brand guessing game is easy. Germany, for example, despite being on the losing end of two world wars, has achieved an international reputation for engineering excellence that has made it the economic powerhouse of Europe.
In that sense, Germany has reinvented itself. So too, Japan. “Made in Japan” once meant cheap and second-rate. Now, the Japanese automobile and electronic industries straddle the world, and stand for excellence and reliability.
Scotland too has reinvented itself, most obviously by Sir Walter Scott who organised King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. It represented nothing less than a national brand makeover, making all things tartan chic and fashionable. Later, Queen Victoria put the heroic back into the Highlands.
In some ways, for such a small country, Scotland is overburdened by iconography: from tartan to whisky, from lochs to glens, shortbread to haggis, bagpipes to the Loch Ness Monster, golf to kilts…the list goes on.
National symbols are important because they sustain economic activity. For example, Scotland’s tourism industry employs some 200,000 people and visitors spend almost £11 billion a year – with many of those visitors coming from other parts of the UK. Will they still come if Scotland becomes independent?
The tourism and hospitality industry seems split on that one, despite the Scottish government promising to cut VAT for the sector and reduce airport tax.
Whisky is another icon, an industry that employs 10,000 people and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, exports in excess of £4 billion. But food and drink extends well beyond the water of life. Scotland is also home to about 25% of the UK’s beef cattle, and we catch over 50% of the nation’s fish. Our salmon rivers are world-famous, supporting rural and remote communities.
Or financial services, another national icon, with Scotland also credited with “inventing” retail banking. Yet if Scotland achieves independence, banks would have over 1,000% of Scotland’s GDP. When Iceland’s banks went bust, their assets were some 880% of GDP. Is that brand strength, or brand risk? Westminster politicians obviously think so, having blocked Scotland from entering into a UK Poundland after independence. Does Scotland therefore revert to its own currency? Or, longer term, think about the Euro?
(Incidentally, it was Sir Isaac Newton, then Master of the Mint at the Tower of London, who brought Scots coinage into line with the rest of Britain following the Act of Union).
The financial case for independence is based, at least initially, on two iconic industries – North Sea oil and the financial sector. The SNP hopes to secure some 90% of tax from oil and gas, albeit a diminishing source of revenue, and a healthy slice of income from the country’s financial sector. (That’s leaving to one side the issue of Scotland’s share of national debt).
That means that Scotland the Brand will be dependent on a diminishing asset under its waters, and a sector that (post-crash) the country can’t necessarily rely on to deliver a safe return. Let’s not forget that, against Scottish tax revenues of some £60 billion annually, the cost of the bank bailouts was some £500 billion in loans and guarantees.
It’s why the SNP government is keen to develop renewables as a new icon of Scottish industry, despite some ambivalent figures – for example, that offshore wind investment halved to £29 million last year. Biggest blow was a decision by Scottish Power to drop plans for the £5.4 billion Argyll Array windfarm.
Scotland has other strengths, particularly its track record of invention: from penicillin to the postage stamp, from TV to the telephone, the steam engine to logarithms…that list also goes on and on, to modern advances in gaming to Dolly the Sheep. If Scotland the Brand stands for anything, it must also be about education, innovation and invention. Medical and scientific research may become brand icons of the new Scotland.
However, in this year of decision, Scotland the Brand will also step onto an international sporting stage, helping the country to redefine itself (again) as a country of beautiful cityscapes and wilderness. The Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup couldn’t have come at a better time for the pro-independence lobby.
But it’s the future that will better define Scotland the Brand: how the country’s universities engage internationally; how Scotland diversifies from oil and financial services; how Scotland can find niche industries to build worldwide reputation; how it attracts inward investment; and how it promotes its festivals, cities and landscapes.
Scotland may or may not vote for independence. But the debate has done one great thing for Scotland: it has raised awareness internationally in Scotland the Brand, a marketing opportunity that the country should grasp with both hands.
Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott.