Brands in the UK are treading a strange new philosophical path: are they about internationalism or are they about location and place, and its more abstract extension, nation? In the face of Brexit, some brands are considering a new localism that the EU departure could see in.

British consumers don’t tend to buy British products, in comparison with consumers in other countries. According to research from Ipsos Mori, which looked at local consumption patterns across 30 markets, just 51% of British people prefer to eat locally produced food, significantly below the average across the survey of 63%.

This is increasingly important as the UK heads (limply, staggering) towards its departure from the European Union, from which it imports 30% of its food. Currently the UK produces around 50% of its own food, the government’s food agency estimates.

Depending on the outcome of the withdrawal agreement and subsequent trade negotiations, Brexit could have a major impact on where Brits can get their food from. Supply chain issues aside, this presents an interesting case for communications strategy.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Dairy Crest’s marketing director Lee Willet expressed doubts that the UK will find a glorious food renaissance as Brexit develops, because in commodity markets such as his – butter and cheese – consumers are primarily motivated by price and convenience.

One of its brands, Country Life, walked an interesting line with an ad featuring none other than the Sex Pistols’ frontman Johnny Rotten (né Lydon), in which the aging punk wonders whether he buys the brand because it’s British. Conclusion: no. He buys it because it’s great butter, but not before calling upon a battery of British symbols and associations, not least himself.

While supply chain continuity – as in the case of the ironically German supermarket chain Aldi – will bring UK retailers huge advantages in the event of any hardness of Brexit, in the febrile atmosphere of this political moment, Britishness offers new and often complicated opportunities.

Witness, for instance, Carling’s recent Made Local campaign, which emphasises the lager brand’s local credentials. It focuses on place, on connection to that place: it claims ground as a citizen of somewhere. Adding to this effort, however, is a certain amount of regional representation, and some cause marketing through the Made Local Fund, which supports projects in less affluent or represented areas of the UK.

Carling is not a brand pitched at the middle classes, representing a departure from the typical positioning of British made foods as more expensive, and therefore primarily targeted at the middle classes. For instance, houses earning more than £55,000 p.a. are 17% more likely to buy British than houses earning less than £20,000.

On the other side of the equation, HSBC, the international banking brand drew criticism in January over its Together We Thrive brand position, that emphasises the UK’s role in “something far bigger.” It comes down to a far more abstract game than brands have had to play before, in which some have decided to take a position on the relative importance of the nation state, or international cooperation.

Sourced from UK Government, Marketing Week, Carling; additional content by WARC staff