Rule Britannia: firms bet on British allure to get by Brexit

AP News
Posted: Mar 27, 2017 4:08 AM
Rule Britannia: firms bet on British allure to get by Brexit

LONDON (AP) — Tim Barlow pushes a green stamp onto the edge of an unfinished plate, leaving behind the words "Made in England."

It's still a piece of unglazed gray clay, a far cry from the gleaming decorated disc of Wedgwood Jasperware it will become, but Barlow and his employers are betting those words will be a selling point as Britain begins the process of leaving the European Union.

"It takes on a greater importance now we're coming out of Europe," he says, matter-of-factly. "We're standing on our own now."

It's not just Wedgwood, the 258-year-old firm that has supplied tableware to Britain's royal family, the Kremlin and the White House. Companies ranging from luxury clothes maker Burberry to Bee Good, a small business making products from British bees, are hoping to make virtue out of necessity by promoting British identity as a selling point.

For some, like Wedgwood, it can mean appealing to foreign visions of a stereotypical Britain: the traditional, classy culture of high tea and garden parties. For others it's a bet that consumers around the world recognize the quality of British workmanship and are willing to pay a premium for it.

The question is important for British business if, as expected, Brexit leads to tariffs and other barriers to trade with the EU, the country's biggest export market. Exports of goods and services account for about 27 percent of the British economy, with almost half of exports going to the EU.

The government is trying to bolster overseas trade with a five-year program designed to help 100,000 new exporters sell goods and services abroad. The Exporting is Great website lists potential buyers including online retailers in China looking for U.K. jewelry and housewares, a Japanese company interested in British raincoats and Wellington boots, and a Turkish importer seeking British cosmetics.

Leaning into the uncertainty, Wedgwood has embarked on a sweeping revamp of its offerings to broaden its international market. Building on a heritage of making granny's china, Wedgwood is planning to capture the image of crumbling castles, Downton Abbey and Will & Kate as it expands to a younger audience and tries to tap into the zeitgeist of companies like Burberry — except that they are doing it for homeware.

Wedgwood is an "unpolished jewel to undust," said Ulrik Garde Due, president of the Fiskars Corp. unit that owns the company. Helsinki-based Fiskars bought Wedgwood, founded in what is now Stoke-on-Trent, England, in 1759, two years ago.

"I think Britain will sell more than ever" after Brexit, he said. "It's turning into a positive. We are turning it into an opportunity."

There's value for a company in being associated with Britain. The country is generally perceived as a "quality supplier," which means that customers in new and emerging markets are willing to pay as much as 7 percent more for British products, according to a 2014 study by the Centre for Economics & Business Research for London-based Barclays bank.

"There are bigger premiums to be had when products are marketed as 'Made in Britain,'" the report said.

Like Wedgwood, Burberry turned up the volume on heritage in its latest show last month in London. The company, known for trench coats to fend off the British weather and traditional plaid linings, used the curving sculptures of the late British artist Henry Moore as a backdrop for their show, with fashionistas receiving invitations etched on stones recalling his work.

The question is whether Wedgwood and other companies that bank on being British will find their names tarnished by the turmoil of Brexit. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, there were reports of continental Europeans shunning British goods. Carmaker Jaguar Land Rover, for example, said last summer that some European customers were explicitly avoiding their vehicles after the Brexit vote.

But the long term is another matter. Branding expert Richard Cope, of research firm Mintel, says that Brexit can be positive, particularly in trade outside Europe.

Brexit "strengthens the idea that Britain is a bit different," Cope said. "It's not like the rest of Europe. It's another thing that makes it different. I don't think that's a bad thing if you are exporting to Japan or the United States."

In a period of international flux, people will retreat to brands with status, brands that stand for something, said Simi Nijher, an associate strategist at brand consultant Siegel+Gale. Outside of Britain, people won't question what Britain means, and won't bother with the soul searching under way right now in the U.K. about identity and the future without membership in the single market.

"When you put a stamp of provenance on something, you want that to be very clear, very simple," Nijher said. "That link is very clear. It's about quality, about heritage. It's about attaining something that is desirable and, no, I don't think that will change with Brexit."

Much is at stake for companies like Wedgwood, and for people like Barlow. A short stroll around the factory floor showed employees with extraordinary levels of service — 20, 30, even 40 years of painting, molding and firing clay.

These are the people who have been through the good times and the tough times, surviving the company's recent bankruptcy, re-organization and purchase.

Barlow picked up a vase in the Jasperware line, a classic design with white Grecian style figures on blue background. He flipped it over.

"I got my initials at the bottom as well," he said proudly. "So in 200 years, on the Antiques Roadshow (TV program), you might be able to say: It was one of mine."