Building a flexible place marketing strategy with a strong brand platform

Between Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, how are international perceptions of Great Britain faring? We spoke with Dan Ramsay, the new director of the GREAT Britain campaign, to discover what the future is for the GREAT brand platform and what the key is to the campaign’s longevity.


Thanks for joining us, Dan. I have to say before we start  though, talk about trial by fire. What was it like to become director of the  GREAT Britain campaign during this year of all years?

It’s certainly been very challenging, but I’m not alone in facing those challenges – these are challenges faced by everyone in every sector around the world. It’s definitely made my job more interesting, but there are some upsides to it. It’s given us at GREAT a little time to pause, given that our activities are on hold, and think about the kind of brand we want to be and who we can become. In a way, when there’s the hubbub of a campaign its harder to do that.

We’re asking how we can take GREAT forwards and take it to the next level. The crisis is just another example of this dynamic economy we exist within and how we need to shape the brand and make it fit for the future. Of course, this pandemic comes at the same time as the UK is leaving the transition period of Brexit as well. Regardless of the crisis, we were at a turning point for the UK’s relationship with the world. It was always going to be the case that we were going to take stock and work out how we were seen in the world and what we have to offer.

You joined the GREAT Britain Campaign from BT. Has coming  from the private sector into nation branding shaped your approach to your work  with the GREAT Britain Campaign?


I think the private sector experience is certainly helpful, all though running a nation brand is nothing quite like that. There are some big differences, but the principals are the same. It’s still about good insight, it’s still about good positioning, about understanding your audience - the subject matter is quite different though.

I look back fondly on my days of marketing broadband or sports channels or TV platforms and think that it looks relatively simple compared to what I do now. The product – if you want to call it that – that you were marketing had edges that were much easier to find. And the distinctive, competitive nature was perhaps a bit easier to define than it is for a country, but that’s the challenge. That’s what makes it interesting and it’s why I love what I do.


What do you think place marketing and place brand teams could  learn from the private sector?

I think that they could learn it from the principal of any marketing-led environment. I’ve never done any nation branding or marketing before, so what do I have to fall back on that’s directing the UK brand in the right area and I suppose it’s just the core principals of marketing. I think people can lose sight of the foundations of what a good brand looks like, which is quite simple when you really stand back and think about it. It’s got to be authentic. It’s got to be interesting and engaging. It’s got to be true to itself. And it’s got to be insight-led and clear about the audience it’s speaking to… Anyone who understands the basics of marketing will get all of those things; sometimes where marketing goes wrong is where people lose sight of the basics.


The GREAT Britain campaign was launched nine years ago  along with the London Olympics and has been a resounding success. And it’s  often cited to us as one of the top place marketing campaigns by other place  brand professionals. What do you think is the key to the campaign’s success?

I think it was always quite brave with what it wanted to do. It set a very high standard for what good looks like. It was never going to be some small project run out of a distant department with a small project. It was led from No 10 and the Prime Minister’s office, and it set bold ambitions that set ambitions to be world class right from the start. I think you can see that confidence and ambition in the creative and brand work that was done.

It was also very clever at using the private sector to help it succeed as well. There are no end of people who want to see their country be more successful and want to help it – and they’re often more than happy to do that on a pro bono basis which the campaign has been very good at leveraging as well. High ambition, high standards, and strong level of support meant that GREAT was able to succeed. I think some efforts in other countries aren’t so lucky to have all of that and they have a much more difficult time than I have.

Getting leadership buy-in is certainly something we talk  about a lot at City Nation Place. What would be your tip for success in  engaging your politicians in your strategy?

You have to speak the language of your audience, and the language that politicians will understand is about influence, and about persuasion, and about leading that to a result. There are brilliant case studies of influence and persuasion in everyday life – more than people realise they know. Why is Apple the best-selling phone in the world? Because it’s an amazing example of persuasion, influence, and getting you to choose its brand when, rationally, there are other choices you could make differently.

That’s the language that a politician can understand even if they don’t understand the nuts and bolts of marketing. And there’s a reason why the brand value of companies is infinitely bigger than the actual value of their assets. This isn’t hocus pocus that’s happening somewhere vaguely distant from the real world. These are real and genuine things that are happening day in and day out to real companies. Even though that’s not really the remit of the public sector, the public sector can adopt some of those things and be more successful for it. You just need to frame the argument in a different way to marketing speak.


How have perceptions of Britain on the world stage been  impacted by the last few years of uncertainty, what with Brexit and now the  COVID-19 pandemic? You mentioned that you’d paused a lot of your activity and  that you’re rethinking the shape and future of the brand, but how is the GREAT Britain Campaign working to proactively influence international perceptions?

We stopped some activity throughout the crisis because without being able to travel internationally and with the world – quite rightly – distracted on to much more important things, it wouldn’t be the appropriate tone to be marketing Britain in that way. That’s absolutely the right choice, and we’re constantly reviewing to make sure that we’re in line with that.

Does the changing nature of the political environment change what we have to do? Yes, of course it does, but that’s what we do – it’s our everyday bread and butter for making sure we remain relevant in an ever-changing world. It’s no different to being in a corporate environment. A competitor reacts or a regulator changes something, and you have to react accordingly.

We do ongoing polling all the time. There’s a core essence of what that brand is which is quite hard to shift and is pretty constant and solid. The great news is that the key attributes of the UK are really strong indeed – there are probably a lot of people around the world who would give their hind teeth to have such strong brand attributes as the UK. And actually, in times of crisis in particular, being known for being stable, trustworthy, consistent, and reliable are very helpful brand attributes to have. I think in the long run the UK will come out well because of it.

There are always ups and downs in brand perceptions. There are always market forces or international political forces that always see ups and downs. That’s what makes it interesting. But the long run health of where we are at is very good indeed.


What would be your suggestion to cities and regions in  the UK looking to leverage the GREAT Britain brand to drive their own recovery?

There’s a huge synergy between the international muscle and weight that the GREAT brand can bring, and the local, specific attributes and flavours that nations and regions in the UK can bring as well. These things aren’t conflicting, they’re supporting. The GREAT campaign has always taken the view that it’s here to promote every part of the UK; I’m completely agnostic as to whether an investor makes their investment in the north, south, east, or west of the UK. Clearly some areas of the UK are better known for some sectors than others, but partnership with us and copromotion with us is the way to see everyone win-win.


If you could pick one thing that you were most proud of  from the GREAT Britain campaign, what would it be?

One example of how we’ve adapted to COVID is that we ran a small campaign in the UK celebrating GREAT Inspirations, which were examples from every corner or the country of businesses who have adapted to do something quite different from their normal business model to support their local communities. We gathered about 75 stories from local businesses – some of which were really small single-person businesses and then all the way up to large international companies – and told the stories of how they turned their model on its head to deliver supplies to local schools or vulnerable people, or to produce PPE on their production line. Honestly, for some of them I was on the edge of tears listening to these and realising how generous people could be with their own businesses that they’ve grown over the years and then seeing the pride people had in telling us those stories. Being able to share those stories was amazing.

That’s not normally what we do, because we’re more about promotion of the UK’s more obvious assets, but it turned into a great case study of the British character and sense of positivity and making do during different times. Those stories actually became a really fantastic advert for the UK!


You’ve pre-empted my next  question! The GREAT Inspirations project is amazing, they’re such fantastic  stories of positivity and goodwill in the mire that is 2020. These stories are  all about being an exemplary British citizen, but what about a nation looking to make an impact on a global level?

I think it’s all about finding what you’re authentically distinctive at. It has to be special and ideally unique to that individual country, but it also has to be authentic and true to a country’s individual nature. It could be a whole range of things. It could be a physical attribute, a capability, a historical strength, it could be the spirit and personality of a people.

When you think about what a nation brand is… You can play all these strange word association games to prove that nation brands exist. If I say ‘Switzerland’ to you and asked for you to tell me the image you associated with it, most people would say rather caricature things like chocolate or mountains or watches.

You have to find out what that is for you if you don’t have that image association already and then understand how it’s useful and how you can exploit it for good effect. Some of the more caricatured images of nations are double edged swords – they’re useful to create an image in someone’s head, but it’s not necessarily the image you wanted to create. If you’ve got a chance to start with a blank piece of paper because you’re a country that’s not that large or well-known internationally then you’ve got a real opportunity. It’s a really exciting opportunity to build a nation brand.

Great. Thanks for sharing that with us, Dan.

Dan Ramsay will be joining us at City Nation Place UK to deliver a keynote address on Brand Britain on the international stage. Find out more here.

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