Was There a Cool Britannia Campaign?

May 6, 2011

It’s becoming conventional wisdom within Public Diplomacy Studies that after coming to power in 1997 Tony Blair’s  new Labour government launched an effort to rebrand the UK as Cool Britannia and that this campaign was a disastrous failure  –  Laura McGinnis labels it as the Waterworld of nation branding.

Over the past few months I’ve become increasingly sceptical about this idea.  I’ve been looking at writings that make this claim and looking for references to primary source materials – I’m not seeing them.   So in part this post is a challenge.  If there was a campaign who ran it?  Where did the budget come from? What were its objectives – do we have any campaign planning documents?  Any information on visual identity?  I haven’t come across any of this material and in it’s absence I find it difficult to believe there was a systematic campaign.

If there was no campaign why do we think that there was one?

I think that the story of Cool Britannia come from the retrospective conflation of two developments.  Firstly, Cool Britannia as a media narrative particularly associated with the writings of Stryker McGuire of Newsweek in 1996-97.  This played into the narrative of modernity promoted by the Blair government who exploited  (it I think  for domestic purposes) through stunts like inviting Britpop bad boys Oasis to 10 Downing Street and appointing the head of their record label as a government advisor.  Predictably this attempt to align the government with rock and roll and modern art created a backlash both from sceptics and from the efforts of artists to avoid cooptation.

The second development was the growing interest in nation branding and the possibility of using a nation branding effort to re-shape the image of the UK.   The Design Council – the quasi governmental body that supports the design industry in the UK had commissioned a study New Brand for a New Britain.   The involvement of the Design Council  indicated the growing interest in creative industries in the UK – the recognition that activities like design,  advertising, media, marketing, the arts are actually big chunks of the UK economy.   The Design Council report was published as Blair came into power and in turn led to the commissioning of more research from Demos the prototypical new Labour think tank.  This was Mark Leonard’s BritainTM: Renewing Our Identity which attracted quite a lot of interest. Leonard left Demos to lead a new think tank the Foreign Policy Centre – again tightly aligned to the Labour Party and which produced a paper by Wally Olins on branding, Trading Identities in 1999 and a  series of reports on Public Diplomacy starting in 2000.

Ok – so there was media discourse about Cool Britannia that drew in bits of the government, there was a growing interest in (and controversy around) nation branding but what about the UK PD machinery?

The governmental response to this interest was the creation in 1997 of an  FCO advisory group  Panel 2000 (with Mark Leonard as member) with the brief

to produce a strategy to improve the way Britain is seen overseas;

to look at the methods and tools available to do this;

to make sure that the public and private sectors are working together to do this; and

to modernise the way the FCO  communicates with the public

Apart from Leonard the membership of the panel was drawn in part from the private sector but also included the new Labour communications guru Peter Mandelson.   Panel 2000 begat the Britain Abroad Task Force which began it’s work at the beginning of 2001 and was intended to develop better coordination between the various bits of government concerned with the projection of Britain. Around this time the British Council was conducting research on the perception of Britain under the label Through Others Eyes.   I get the impression that all of  this work was proceeding without any urgency –  certainly it wasn’t running a campaign.

September 11 changed the game.  In quick succession we get the Wilton and Carter reviews of Public Diplomacy which are conducted rapidly by much smaller groups and which produced reorganizations  and the UK PD discourse swings from general concerns with image to towards more political matters.  Interestingly if you look at more recent PD UK documents where there are general discussions of the UK image the themes are not a million miles from those identified in Leonard’s 1997 report.

The myth of the Cool Britannia campaign comes from the government buying into a media narrative which predictably blew up in its face (eg Jarvis Cocker of  the band Pulp commenting that Labour were worse than the Tories) .  In parallel the policy community was exploring ideas of nation branding. What connected these developments was new  Labour’s interest in questions of image and creative industries but there was no systematic rebranding campaign.   If anyone knows better please let me know.

UPDATE: For more on Panel 2000 and the Britain Abroad Task Force see here




  1. […] campaign started in the mid-1990s around Tony Blair’s government. More here, and here on Robin Brown’s blog (and what’s wrong with Waterworld? I liked […]

  2. […] Public DIplomacy Networks and Influence (2011) Was There a Cool Britannia Campaign? https://pdnetworks.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/was-there-a-cool-britannia-campaign/ […]

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