The Great British brand identity crisis

Symbols are significant. And few symbols carry more significance for those who encounter it than a nation’s flag. So the unveiling of the dove-inspired design by British Airways earlier this week – less than a fortnight after the launch of the Team GB athletes kit pictured above – only serves to reinforce an idea that’s been irking me about the Olympics’ effect on the UK’s brand identity: is our nation in danger of conveying the idea that we are colourless, drained of energy and drab?

Faster, higher, (but not quite as) stronger?

The Union flag motif features in both of these flagship (forgive the pun) projects, but its signature colours are muted and restrained: blues and reds are either missing altogether, or pushed to the margins in preference for percentage tints.

It would be unfair to suggest that the artist and designer behind the BA livery, Pascal Ansom, and Team GB kit fashion designer, Stella McCartney, lack vision because – clearly – they don’t. Yet, despite the creative kernel beating at the heart of both projects, especially the optimism of Mr Ansom’s vision, the final execution just seems to fall short.

In fact, this seems to me to be an emerging theme where the Olympics Games is concerned, and it isn’t limited to colour-sapping Union flag motifs either. Despite Wolff Olins designing the London 2012 brand identity – a riot of colour in concept– with so much potential to convey an idea of London as “…unconventionally bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant, echoing London’s qualities of a modern, edgy city.”

When it comes to the physical things that people encounter beyond the boundaries of the Olympic Park – like merchandise, the Team GB kit and the national carrier’s aircraft livery – that brand spirit has been translated into washed-out designs built on predominantly white, grey, pastel pink and diesel blue base colours.

In other words, we ought to experience something ‘bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant’ and, instead, end up with something bland, conventional and predictable.

Even where ideas – like the dove livery – do seem to reflect the brand spirit originally imagined by Wolff Olins, the adoption of the gold seems to ‘dial down’ the visual vibrancy.

So why does this suggest Britain has an identity crisis?

Symbolically, London 2012 matters because it is probably the most significant peacetime event since the Festival of Britain in 1951. Whereas the Festival of Britain created a remarkable social, cultural and economic platform for the Great Britain brand throughout the world, London 2012 seems to have momentarily glimpsed the possibilities of the the grand design, but failed to muster the courage to see it through.

My suspicion is that we are forfeiting the chance to make a bolder statement about contemporary Britain; something more assertive about our attititude, what we stand for and our place in the world. But we appear to lack the driving idea and impetus which fuelled the aspirations of other Olympic Games: of the economic and cultural revival of Spain at Barcelona; the symbolic maturity of Australia as a global power in Sydney; and the reputational repositioning of China’s brand via the Beijing Olympic Games.

I’d suggest that the instinct to dilute the colours of our national flag – with the absence of strong blues or reds which, after all, represent the nations of our Union – are emblematic of the hosting nation’s lack of sure-footedness.

Yes the economic circumstances are taxing – quite literally – but the branding of London 2012 belies a broader lack of confidence and belief; a nagging anxiety about what the Great British brand stands for politically, economically, socially and culturally.

This is all the more poignant because, for a nation who has enjoyed a remarkable reputation for creativity, far from establishing a design trend, the subdued palettes of the London 2012 projects appear to be following one.

I vaguely recall noticing brands like Cath Kidston adapting the hues of the Union flag around the time of the credit crunch in 2007-08. While the world was being implored to ‘keep calm and carry on’, Kidston was churning out cushions, tea towels and all manner of twee blue/white-patterned union flag branded items. It’s a trend which The Guardian’s Huma Qureshi, in her retrospective on noughties interior design, suggests started some seven years ago. Huma says: “Craft became cool with Etsy’s launch in 2005, and shabby chic was born, giving rise to a whole new style of deliberately distressed, mismatched imperfection.”

Is that what we’re conveying about the UK brand: shabby, distressed, mismatched imperfection that’s seven years late?