British food brands and the world

(originally written for a piece published last year) 

I was recently asked to comment about the international success of British food brands in the The Times’ The Raconteur. As often is the case with things like that I’ve had a lot more to say than the article allows, so here’s a link to the article and here are my original thoughts, lightly edited. (oh, and BTW ‘Made in Britain’ isn’t a government project).
Q: What is it about ‘brands’ such as Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, Pret, Costa and co that makes them appealing? What part does Britishness have to play in this success – any at all?
A: While all four Brands are strong examples of British success abroad, they relate to Britishness in different ways. Pret and Costa excel through a business model that meets consumer needs quickly and efficiently. The first providing a healthier, fresher alternative to fast food, the latter riding the increased savvy of coffee drinkers. British business innovation if you will, but they aren’t particularly British in any explicit way, despite Costa’s nods to some nostalgic bakery and biscuits. When it comes to Ramsey and Oliver, however, both are ambassadors of our changing relationship with food, despite not being quintessentially British in the way a brand like Paul smith, for example, is.
First, we should keep in mind that for large parts of the world, British accent and mannerism are enough to make a brand British. As their brand stories develop, Oliver becomes the plucky young cockney while Ramsey combines a gruff disciplinarian perfectionist angle mixed with his colourful language. Beyond style, they have become ambassadors to the changing relationship of Britain with food – Oliver with his commitment to fresh and healthy ingredients; Ramsey with his meticulous attention to ingredients. Both almost a direct opposite of the stereotypical stodgy British grub. The one made with cheap ingredients with no fresh vegetable in sight that foreigners used to think of, and which to be fair, is mostly the result of post world war(s) recession years.

Q: How are brands being received internationally and is the reception different in different markets – for example Europe, the US and further afield?
A: When we worked on the Made in Britain campaign, we’ve learned different markets have different views of Britishness.
Europeans have a much stronger sense of pride in their own cuisine traditions. In a united yet competitive EU they are much more reluctant to give up on cultural stereotyping. By the way, neither are the British keen to let go of their view of the french, for example.
Americans, on the other hand, have a fascination with Britishness and a strong emotional response to British accents. We have the BBC to thank for much of that.
In Japan, Britishness is almost fetishised. We mentioned Paul Smith – Japan is his biggest market.
Q: What do you think is the future of British restaurant and food brands – why do you think so?
A: We’ve been successfully exporting celebrity chefs for a while now, and the innovative TV formats that go with them have helped tremendously. It’s interesting to note that while many celebrity chefs on American TV tend to be TV presenters first, many of ours have the Michelin stars to prove their merit. This trend will continue to shift international perceptions of contemporary British cuisine. Traditional cuisine is more likely to stay somewhat maligned for the foreseeable future.
But with a London culinary scene that, many chefs agree, is more exciting than Paris and is gradually catching up with New York (in the number of Michelin stars and restaurants that make it into global rankings), the future looks bright.

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