Will Unilever's Rotterdam Decision Be Punished By Rise Of Brand Britain?

It is not surprising news that Unilever has chosen Rotterdam ahead of the UK as its unified headquarters. The impending decision had been hinted at in leaks made well ahead of it being formally ratified.

Unilever has handled the announcement with great aplomb. It's actually quite a big deal, but it has been positioned as a bit of pen-pushing administration that was always in the proverbial post. Needless to say, Unilever chiefs have been at the forefront of assuring the public it has nothing to do with Brexit

I'm not sure I entirely believe the whole argument, but it is worth pointing out that although Rotterdam has been given the nod as the company's unified HQ, it has split its operations in to three categories -- and London keeps two. That means beauty and personal care as well as home care stays right here, while food and refreshment will go to Rotterdam. 

So it's not quite the doom-and-gloom decision it might at first appear to be, although ultimately, Rotterdam was picked above London as the place to steer the company from. It makes sense to end its twin-HQ approach and plump for one city.

The question Unilever now has to ask is not what the City and business commentators think of the move. As I said, that has been handled very well and the logic behind the decision has been explained.

No -- the question now is what will the British public think of one of its most famous companies ditching London for Rotterdam. A lot of my family hail from the area where Lord Leverhulme started his soap business, which eventually became Unilever. It's a source of great pride, and employment, to the UK that the company behind some of the most famous brand names in the world came from a peninsular of land called called The Wirral, just underneath Liverpool. Take the famous ferry across the Mersey, and you're right there. 

Let's put this another way. I was recently involved in some high-level research looking at the factors that marketers should potentially be concerned about -- including, but not restricted to, Brexit.

The overriding finding is that marketers -- particularly those involved in branding -- are terrified of issues impacting a brand's perception that they have no control over. Questionable tax structures, failing to pay at least the minimum wage and employees acting badly towards the public were the kind of problems mentioned.

There was also the Brexit factor, however. We have not yet found out what transpires, but the general feeling among those surveyed -- and the brains behind the questions  -- was that we might start to see the rise of Brand Britain. This could be encouraged by people buying domestic products and services to avoid higher import charges and a final price that reflects the dip in the value of the pound.

More emotionally, however, it could be sparked by Britons feeling aggrieved by their most famous sons and daughters hopping on a ferry to avoid all the fallout of the Brexit vote. 

Now, I'm not saying this is what Unilever has done, I suspect in a toss-up between two cities most people would choose the one that is definitely going to be firmly in the EU in a couple of years time. Throw in the fact that it's a huge logistics centre, and there's a lot going for Rotterdam.

But it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out with the average Brit. Will they switch spending habits to punish a company that could potentially be seen as leaving the UK at a difficult time?

My gut feeling is they won't. Mostly because Brits, in general, are not nationalistic. We buy products from all over the world and we're not a hands-over-our-hearts-singing-a-national anthem type of country. It also helps that I bet most people wouldn't know whether their favourite food, soaps and detergents are actually made by Unilever. Consumers like a brand, not the company behind it.

But the question is worth asking because the Brexit vote was a very rare outing for the Union Jack and a raised level of national pride. Senior marketers are seriously watching out for whether the Brand Britain phenomenon transpires. I'm not so sure it will. It's not in our nature.

However, I think Unilever and anyone who follows suit has set themselves up to be the bellwether sign for whether or not this predicted rise in national pride happens. One to watch, definitely.

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