City & Gild: Why we should celebrate the sale of British brands

Simon Massey
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I have been following the Pfizer AstraZeneca shenanigans with fascination and interest. From what I can gather, a big American pharmaceutical company wants to buy a big British pharmaceutical company to become the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world. Lots of people are outraged because yet another British business is to be sold off to outsiders, yet if successful Pfizer wishes to become a British company because of our attractive tax structure. So would the new PfizerAstraZeneca be British? Could our objections be unfounded? Does it matter since AstraZeneca said no?

We have witnessed so many of these sales in recent years and outrage is the usual response. No one ever seems to be joyous that British entrepreneurs have built something valuable and sold it, bringing funds into the country. We’re proud when we export a lot, surely this is just another form of an export. I completely understand the nation’s upset if, as seems to be Pfizer’s intent, significant cuts follow a purchase, in this case investment in research and science being the most critical. This is good cause to be obstructive or to negotiate harder.

What fascinates me most is the idea that people have that suddenly the brand is not British anymore. This begs a very important question, “where does the brand really reside, where the money sits or where the heart and soul sits?” Rolls Royce is the quintessential British brand. If you ask anyone from anywhere in the world to personify the Rolls Royce brand they will talk about a tall British gentleman with a top hat and a cane. The heart and soul of Rolls Royce will always be British, but the ownership, the cash sits in Germany. No one would ever say Rolls Royce is a German brand.

If the Britishness of a brand is built deeply into its heart and soul, the brand will always be British regardless of where the money sits.

What we often don’t think about when we’re moaning about our great British brands being flogged off is how much more glorious and successful they can become with foreign investment and know-how. We work closely with Mondelez (nee Kraft) who controversially bought Cadbury, our beloved chocolate brand. The people who work on Cadbury aren’t Americans stripping it of its assets, they are Brits, Europeans, South Americans, people of the world who love and adore its British roots and strive to bring the associated personality and behaviours to life in everything they do. I worked with Cadbury when it was independent, I work with it now that it is part of Mondelez and I can honestly say it’s a more exciting brand with more global potential under the stewardship of Mondelez.

If we need more examples, let’s talk about Mini, a brand which languished for years with little investment and love, irrelevant to the vast majority. Look at the little fella now, and we couldn’t be more proud of our little Brit brand.

Of course the trick as we build our great brands, our fine and successful businesses and sell them on, is to ensure that we’re building more great brands and businesses to take their place. Invention is the lifeblood of this great nation and with the likes of Virgin and Dyson setting the standard, I think we should celebrate the sale of another great British business and crack on with building another one.

Simon Massey is global chief executive of strategic branding consultancy The Gild,