When a ‘great British name’ is sold to a foreign owner, there is usually a momentary twinge of regret, even Daily Mail-led outrage, at the impudence of Johnny Foreigner. This is quickly followed by resignation - another reminder that the great British names are not as great as they used to be now that we live in global markets.
But do consumers really care? Since branding began, we have been buying from American operations such as P&G, Colgate Palmolive or General Mills. Unilever has been Anglo-Dutch since its inception in 1930.
Although in recent years a lot of advertising effort has gone into creating corporate relationships with consumers, brand owners are still relatively shadowy figures to the public. The relationship is with the physical product and the values it represents. We see this when a brand no longer justifies its premium because the physical attributes are not distinctively better and the values and personality less relevant. The fact that it may come from a UK-owned or foreign-owned organisation does not enter into the thinking of the consumer.
This is because most brands are basically stateless. Granted, in an Olympic and Jubilee year, everyone wrapped themselves in the flag. But generally, a brand is itself, a proposition, a personal relationship with the consumer.
There are the obvious sectors where national provenance is an integral part of the personality: cars, wine, spirits, perfumes and cheese all trade on the perceived clichés of different nationalities. Which will break down first, an Italian car or a German car? See what I mean? But elsewhere, few brands use national provenance as an integral part of their offer.
Look at P&G’s Aussie brand, which cleverly uses the clichéd view of the Australian to add personality. Clear, simple branding. But if it was presented as an Australian brand, made in Europe by a US-owned business and sold in the UK, imagine the confused reaction.
Big business has been seen as the baddie for many years, thanks to a string of damning news stories and documentaries. The recent Amazon/Google/Starbucks tax scandals and the many more to come reinforce this perception. Brand owners would be wise to stay in the background, offering nothing more than a miasma of corporate responsibility and good deeds.
If further proof were needed of consumer indifference, the Qatari royal family now own 50% more of Sainsbury’s than the Sainsbury family. Is there outrage? Has UKIP demanded a boycott? No, and nor will they. No one cares. As long as the service is good and the prices are right, that’s enough. Frankly, people have more important things to worry about right now.
Claire Nuttall is founding partner of Thrive
“Brand owners are still relatively shadowy figures to the public”