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Americanisation in 20th Century Europe: business, culture, politics. Volume 2

Nick Tiratsoo
Mathias Kipping

Americanisation in British consumer markets, 1950-2000

James Obelkevich


La vision traditionnelle de l’influence américaine dans la Grande-Bretagne de l’après-guerre consiste à affirmer que les consommateurs britanniques furent américanisés, mais que les entreprises ne le furent pas. L’objectif de cet article est de contester cette vision. Les consommateurs britanniques furent de fait des acheteurs de nombreux produits fabriqués par des entreprises américaines. Mais étant donné que beaucoup de ces produits étaient en fait beaucoup plus britanniques qu’américains, leurs consommateurs pouvaient difficilement être considérés comme américanisés. En revanche, la conception moderne des méthodes de commercialisation était, sans aucun doute, américaine. Leur adoption très rapide par les entreprises britanniques de biens de consommation dans les années 1960 fournit un exemple parfait d’américanisation.

Texte intégral

1American consumer goods companies have been successful in Britain ever since the late Nineteenth Century. Ford, Mars, Heinz, Colgate, Gillette and many others are as much household names in Britain as they are in America. But what were the consequences of the American ‘invasion’? To what extent have British consumers - and consumer goods companies - been Americanised?

2The current view is that the consumers were indeed Americanised, simply by virtue of using goods produced by American companies; this is often considered a bad thing, moreover, by those who believe that it undermined the British way of life and national identity. The usual verdict on British business, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite: that it was not significantly Americanised, and that it would have been better if it had been.

3My aim in this chapter is to reconsider the Americanizing process in a period, the second half of the Twentieth Century, when American direct investment in Britain was at its peak. What emerges is that British consumers were less Americanised, and British consumer goods companies more Americanised, than has been supposed


  • 1 J. McMillan and B. Harris, The American Take-Over of Britain, London, Leslie Frewin, 1968, p. 1-3.
  • 2 J.H. Dunning, American Investment in British Manufacturing Industry, London, George Allen & Unwin, (...)

4In ‘Mrs John Bull’s Diary’, the alarmist first chapter of McMillan and Harris’s The American Take-Over of Britain (1968), virtually everything she does in the course of her day involves some American product or other. She wakes up at 7 am when her Westclox alarm rings, and on getting up she lays out her husband’s Gillette razor and Old Spice aftershave; the list continues with her Playtex girdle, Max Factor lipstick, Maxwell House Coffee, Tetley Tea, Keilogg’s cornflakes, Quaker Oats, Fairy Liquid, Brillo Pads, Ajax, Ford Anglia, Esso, Goodyear tyres, Safeway supermarket, Mars Bars, Timex watch, Black and Decker tool kit, Kodak film, Parker Pen, Reader’s Digest, Yale lock, Coca-Cola, Monogram electric blanket, etc.1 This was not just nationalist panic. As Dunning had shown in the previous decade, American companies had gained leading shares in a dozen or more British consumer markets.2

5But both the success of those companies and the effects on consumers have been exaggerated and misinterpreted. It has become almost the received wisdom that all American companies in Britain were successful; that all of their products were popular; that they could somehow impose their products on British consumers; that their products were intrinsically American; that they revolutionized consumer tastes and habits. Yet a look at the evidence casts doubt on all of these familiar claims.

6In the first place, the American companies had failures as well as successes. More than one such company entered the British market, launched its products, lost money (sometimes quite large amounts), gave up, and pulled out altogether. Some, like Campbell’s Soup, persisted through ten or more years of losses, eventually went into the black, but never came close to matching their American results. And otherwise successful companies had failures with individual products. Betty Crocker cake mix is perhaps the best-known example in a long list that ranges from Jello to Gillette’s 7 Flags aftershave. Even mighty Procter & Gamble had setbacks with products like Gleam toothpaste and Downy fabric conditioner. Of course the majority of new products fail, even in home markets. But the fact that a product was popular in America was no guarantee it would succeed in Britain - a lesson some overconfident American companies learned the hard way.

7These failures also refute claims that American companies could somehow overwhelm British competitors and impose monopolies. Britain was not a command but a market economy, after all, and by the late 1950s most consumer markets were highly competitive, leaving consumers spoilt for choice. In these crowded markets American companies certainly did not have everything their own way. They faced tough competition from British, European, and later Japanese companies, not to mention American rivals. Procter & Gamble, engaged in a ‘holy war’ with its Anglo-Dutch arch-rival Unilever, had its successes; but in head-to-head competition with Lever Brothers between 1968 and 1983 Lever came out ahead in five markets out of six. There was no American corporate steamroller. Consumers picked and chose what they wanted from America (and from France or Japan or wherever) and ignored the rest. No one was forced to eat at McDonald’s.

8It is usually taken for granted that when British consumers purchased the products of American companies, those products must have been American. But were they? To go beyond mere casual observation of American brand names we need a strict definition: a genuinely American product must have originated and been developed in the US; the product marketed in Britain must be physically identical with the one marketed in the US; and it must have the same brand name, packaging, advertising, and positioning. On this definition, many apparently American products marketed in Britain were not really American at all.

9Some were in fact entirely British in origin: the only thing American about them was the fact that the companies that developed and produced them now happened to have American owners. Examples include Bird’s custard powder, Marmite, Bovril, and Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. When American companies took over British companies, they were more likely to carry on with the existing products than to introduce American ones. Pepsi-Cola, on acquiring the crisps brands Walkers and Smiths in the late 1980s, did not replace them with its American brands. Instead it concentrated on Walkers, investing heavily in manufacturing, packaging, and distribution (as well as advertising), and turned a modest regional brand into a dominant, highly successful national one - but not into an American one.

10Many British subsidiaries, moreover, created entirely new products of their own, specifically for the British market. The Ford Cortina, designed and produced by Ford in Britain, became one of the most popular cars in the country, yet was never launched in the United States. Procter & Gamble was another American company whose British subsidiary usually developed specific brands for the UK. (Indeed, most of the brands of this ‘global’ company in the 1990s were still local or regional: of over 300 brands, only three were truly global). There also were examples of British subsidiaries developing new products intended not just for Britain for the company as a whole, including its home American market: Gillette’s GII razor, for example, the first twin-blade Systems razor, was developed in the Gillette R and D establishment in Reading and sold around the world. Of the ‘American’ products sold in Britain, most were probably of British origin.

11Even those that were of American origin were not always physically identical with their American counterparts. Many an American company kept the American brand name for its British product but varied the product itself, to make it more agreeable to local tastes. Heinz Tomato Soup had one recipe in America and another in Britain. (And the British product was far more popular in Britain than the American one was in America). Similar examples could be multiplied. The Mars Bar is not the same in northern Europe as it is in Southern Europe; in Japan, Coke itself is slightly sweeter in the south than in the Tokyo area. It is well known in marketing circles that even the biggest multinationals, for all their brave talk about global brands, constantly make regional and national adjustments of this kind. Nor was it only the physical formulations that were altered. There were national variations in brand names (the Gillette GII, for example, was marketed in the US as the Trac II), packaging and, not least, advertising. Even the Marlboro cowboy was not the same in Hong Kong as in Heidelberg; while advertising for McDonald’s was created separately in each country, there being no common campaign across Europe.

  • 3 J. Figura, “Colgate-Palmolive: the Global Scope of Soap”, HBA Today, winter 1991, p.12.
  • 4 Dr K. Kirchmayr of Henkel UK, quoted in [Anon.], “Affairs of the Hair”, Soap Perfumery Cosmetics, (...)

12On this evidence it seems likely that a large proportion of the American products on the British market fail to meet the criteria for Americanness suggested above. And since they were not really American, those who used them could not possibly have been Americanised. Similar points apply to globalization. Palmolive soap was considered a global brand, yet in 1980 was sold in nine different shapes, twenty-two different fragrances, and seventeen different packages, and under “two very different strategic positionings”.3 An authority on the toiletries market has remarked, “if products are identical in ingredients, positioning/concept, brand name, packaging and communication”, then the brand is “truly international”. But he had “never come across such a product”.4

13Even when the British product was the same as the American, the ways in which it was used, and its meanings to consumers, were likely to differ. American pizza chains operate in both countries: but in the American restaurants, customers pick up the pizza and eat it out of their hands, while in Britain they use knife and fork. Listerine mouthwash, in America, was a normal part of the morning routine; in Britain, usage was occasional and quasi-medicinal. And although American products dominated certain British markets, they were weak or absent in others. In the cinema, American movies were more popular than British (though audiences were declining); but on television - vastly more popular than the cinema - the overwhelming majority of the programmes were British. In such an important area of consumption as alcoholic drink there was little American influence. British consumer habits remained reassuringly British.

Case studies: McDonald’s and Coca-Cola

14Two companies, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, are invariably singled out in discussions of Americanisation. These villains of the piece not only symbolize the process but are believed to possess a power to dominate markets and to impose American tastes and habits that is virtually irresistible. Once again a closer look at the evidence suggests otherwise.

15McDonald’s, the more recent arrival, has undoubtedly flourished in the British market. In 2000 it was estimated that a million people ate in its British restaurants every day. But there was nothing automatic or pre-ordained about its success. When it opened its first restaurant in Britain in 1974, it was anything but all-conquering. It initially suffered heavy losses (as in most of the countries where it has set up new franchises) and took five years to make a profit. Nor did it succeed by mechanically imposing its American formula on the British and simply waiting for resistance to fade away. On the contrary, its fortunes changed only when it dropped its American policy of locating restaurants in the suburbs and began instead to open new outlets in city centres. Indeed, the company is much less rigid in its approach than is often supposed. Of course, customers can expect certain things in McDonald’s everywhere, including cleanliness, quick service, good quality ingredients, and a welcome for families and children. But criticisms of ‘homogenization’ seem misplaced. One of the keys to its success is precisely its flexibility in adapting to local circumstances - which it shows even in the selection of food offered on its menus. Contrary to the familiar claim that it offers the same narrow range of exclusively American dishes in every country around the world, the various subsidiaries regularly drop standard dishes where demand is weak and introduce new ones in response to local tastes. In Britain, for example, it developed Oriental McRib and its own version of a classic local dish, McChicken Korma Naan. Elsewhere, national specialities include Maharaja Mac in India and its two most popular dishes in Japan, Teriyaki McBurger and Chicken Tatsuta, both of them unique to that market.

  • 5 [Anon.], Fast Food and Home Delivery Outlets, London, Key Note, 2001, Table 3.

16Still another misconception about McDonald’s is that it dominates the British fast food market. It is true that in 2000, with sales of around £1 billion, McDonald’s dominated the burgers sector, worth about £1.7 billion. But its share of the market as a whole, estimated at £7.3 billion, was only 14 per cent. The largest sector, with sales of over £2.5 billion, was sandwiches.5 And the mere mention of that quintessentially English invention ought to cast doubt on any claim that McDonald’s, or America, has transformed the nation’s eating habits. Fast food was popular in Britain long before McDonald’s arrived on the scene - sandwiches had originated in the Eighteenth Century and fish and chips in the second half of the Nineteenth. Hamburgers too had long been available, and indeed from British chains such as Wimpy, where unappetizing food was served in cheerless surroundings. McDonald’s did not start something new: it did an old thing better. And while the British diet has undoubtedly changed a great deal in the last half century, many of the most notable additions - Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Greek - have nothing to do with McDonald’s or with America. And considering the popularity of sandwiches in America, Britain has probably had more influence on American food than America has on British.

  • 6 M. Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola, New York, Scribners, 1993, p. 376.
  • 7 J. Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A social history of drinks in modern Britain, London, Routledge, 199 (...)

17There are similar doubts about ‘Cocacolonization’. When Coca-Cola entered the British market, in the inter-war period, it was anything but a runaway success, and for many years its results in Britain were “lacklustre”. (It blamed the “drizzly weather”, the taste for warm beer, and an unfamiliarity with ice-cold drinks.6) In the last few decades, it is true, there has been a dramatic growth in soft drink consumption: one authority calls it the “greatest change in British drinking habits in modern rimes”.7 But this cannot be attributed to Coke. The growth of the soft drink market as a whole began around 1970, whereas sales of Coke did not improve significantly until the late 1980s (following the company’s partnership with a British firm, Cadbury); the popularity of Coke was not a cause of that growth but a consequence.

  • 8 Ibid., p 104.

18Even now, Coke plays a smaller role in the British soft drinks market than is often supposed. It of course dominates sales of cola. But colas (in 1999) only accounted for half of the carbonates sector, and with carbonates in turn accounting for no more than half of the soft drink market as a whole, Coca-Cola’s overall share (including products other than Coke itself) was a little over a quarter. Most of the soft drink consumed in Britain was not Coke; in Scotland, Irn Bru outsold Coke in the 1980s by three to one.8 And in Britain as a whole, consumption of Coke remains far below American levels. Has Coke Americanised Britain? It would be more accurate to say that Britain has anglicized Coke.


19It is widely agreed that American influence on post-war British companies would have been a good thing if only there had been more of it: that all too often, as research on the Anglo-American Productivity programme has suggested, American business methods met with indifference, scepticism, or outright resistance. But it may be that we have not looked in the right places. There was no lack of American influence in retailing, for example; and even within the manufacturing sector, our focus on production and organization has led us to overlook the decisive American influence on marketing.

  • 9 A. Seth and G. Randall, The Grocers, London, Kogan Page, 1999, p. 107.
  • 10 Guardian, 8 April 1996.

20In retailing, it is well known that virtually all of the main post-war innovations - including self-service, supermarkets, shopping malls, discounting, and trading stamps - were of American origin. But the ways in which British retailers became aware of them deserve closer attention. The role of government, significantly, appears to have been minor. Far more influential were the American retail chains that operated in the British market. The most important of these, Woolworths, was still the largest retailer in the country in the late 1960s; and the Safeway supermarket chain, launched in Britain in 1962, was the first to introduce “in-store bakeries, money-back guarantees, larger stores with wider aisles, refrigerated displays, freshness control dating, delicatessen, and self-service produce”.9 (The influence of Wal-Mart, which acquired the Asda chain in 1999, remains to be seen). Mention should also be made of several American retailing executives who came to work in British stores: David Dworkin at BHS and elsewhere, John Hoerner at Burton, and Ann Iversen at Mothercare and Laura Ashley. But some of the most important Americanisers were British retailers who crossed the Atlantic to see the American methods for themselves. Among them were such figures as Simon Marks of Marks and Spencer (in 1924); Jack Cohen of Tesco (1935, 1939, 1947); Albert Gubay, founder of Kwik Save (late 1950s); Richard Tompkins, who reintroduced trading stamps (late 1950s); and John Hall, who was so “impressed by US all-in-one shopping malls” in 1979 that he returned to Britain “resolved to build one” - and did, opening the Metro Centre in Gateshead in 1986.10

21American influence on British advertising, on the other hand, has rarely been acknowledged. Indeed the common assumption is that British advertising could not be more unlike its American counterpart, that it has unique qualities of wit, irony, and humour, and that it is entirely home-grown, an immaculate expression of the British creative spirit. In fact this type of advertising originated in America, nearly half a century ago. It was a New York agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, that started the trend, producing the famous campaigns for Volkswagen and Avis and other. Soon their work attracted attention in Britain as well. Young creatives like Charles Saatchi were inspired by it; several even went to New York to study advertising or to work in agencies there. Only later, in the 1970s, did the new style become associated with Britain (while in America it was a casualty of the first oil crisis). But its origins, as even the more self-congratulatory of the London agencies will admit, lay in Madison Avenue.

  • 11 Dunning, 1958: ch.9.
  • 12 M. Steuer and J. Gennard, “Industrial relations, labour disputes and labour utilization in foreign (...)
  • 13 G. Turner, Business in Britain, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971, p. 229.
  • 14 E.W. Barnes, Ad: An Inside View of Advertising, London, Bachman and Turner, 1973, p. 51.

22The American influence was greatest, nevertheless, on the manufacturers. Indeed, companies in the so-called FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) markets could hardly avoid it. They came up against American giants like Mars and Procter & Gamble, which in the decades after the end of the war were among the best-run companies in the world; not to observe and to learn from such formidable competitors was to risk being swept aside by them. Companies like Procter were good at everything11: not only production, but research and development, industrial relations (where they paid higher wages and had fewer disputes than British firms12) and, not least, marketing. In a business culture where gentleman amateurs, old school ties, intuition, and the rule of thumb were still to be found, the American companies were bastions of meritocracy and hard-nosed professionalism. Their thoroughness was startling. Systematically, relentlessly, they tested, quantified, analyzed; one former manager at Mars recalled that the company “tried to measure everything possible, everything in sight”. The Americans had a distinct sense of purpose about them, they took business seriously (too much so, the British sometimes thought), they tried harder. British managers with experience of both American and British companies described the former as “exhilarating” and the latter as “lethargic and uninspiring”.13 At Procter & Gamble, a British observer remarked, managers had an “intellectual drive” and an “application or dedication” that was “rare” in British business.14 British companies setting out to modernize themselves could hardly have found more imposing models.

23The Americans’ most important contribution, nevertheless, was not in any general quality of dedication or enthusiasm. It was more specific: their new conception of marketing. Most British firms in the 1950s were ‘production-oriented’. They decided what to produce, produced it, then tried to persuade people to buy it (or, in a sellers’ market, where supply lagged behind demand, they easily sold everything they made). The marketing approach, by contrast, was consumer-driven: a company talked to the consumers, found out what they wanted, then developed its product accordingly, systematically adapting every aspect of it to meet consumer preferences. Sales and profits came not from inducing consumers to buy what the company wanted to make, but from making products that consumers wanted to buy. This approach was adopted not only by companies making more expensive products such as electrical appliances but also (and perhaps even more vigorously) by those in the FMCG sector, producing inexpensive, everyday packaged goods sold in confectioners or grocers. Today, marketing in this modern sense is practiced by businesses of every kind. But in the late 1950s and 1960s it was a fundamentally new approach. It was moreover a conspicuously American one. The big American companies were its acknowledged masters; and having perfected it in their home market, they were achieving impressive success with it in Britain. Its historical moment arrived in the late 1950s. With austerity and shortages coming to an end and consumers newly affluent, a sellers’ market rapidly gave way to a buyers’ market; no longer was it enough for companies simply to produce: they now had to produce what consumers wanted. And that was precisely what marketing would enable them to do. Among British companies in the consumer goods sector, marketing suddenly became fashionable, even trendy; people spoke of it as a ‘religion’, with its gurus and eager converts. It spread remarkably quickly. By the end of the 1960s the ‘marketing revolution’ had largely run its course; no self-respecting company in the FMCG sector was without its marketing department, market researchers, and brand managers. Today this American innovation is a permanent part of the British way of doing business.

24If marketing was consumer-oriented, then market research, providing the all-important information on consumers, was at the heart of the marketing process. But in the production-oriented 1950s it was still something of a novelty. Many traditional companies had not heard of it, or claimed they did not need it, insisting that they already knew everything about their customers that was worth knowing. Like marketing as a whole, market research was largely an American speciality, and its growth in Britain owed much to American influence. Even in the 1950s it was being used extensively by the leading American companies (and a few British ones), several of which had set up their own in-house research departments. American research companies like Gallup and Nielsen had opened British offices in the 1930s; and after the war a number of individual American researchers came to Britain and played important parts in the expansion of the industry. These included Bob Worcester, founder of MORI; Elizabeth Nelson, one of the founders (in 1965) of Taylor Nelson, now the fourth largest market research company in the world; Judie Lannon, at J. Walter Thompson; and Bill Schlackman, an innovator in qualitative methods and trainer of many British researchers. Most influential of all were the big American advertising agencies. J. Walter Thompson (JWT), the largest in Britain and generally acknowledged as the most modern and innovative, had established its own research subsidiary, the British Market Research Bureau, in the early 1930s, and research departments were created in the other leading agencies.

  • 15 J. F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, London, Bantam Press, 1987, p. 443.

25A perhaps surprising feature of the American approach was a strong emphasis on the functional performance of the product itself. So often it is said that consumer products are all the same and that the only difference between them is their advertising. But that was not the view at Procter or Mars or Black and Decker. They knew that consumers wanted products that worked, that were reliable, convenient, and safe; if a product did not perform well, they might try it once, but they would never buy it again. Product quality therefore became a high priority. When Procter & Gamble developed a new product, their rule was that it must be functionally superior to existing rival products, and that this had to be demonstrated not only in the laboratory but by consumer panels; if users did not show a clear preference for it over existing products, it was withdrawn. Another champion of product excellence was Black and Decker, whose electric tools, awarded top ratings from Which? both for technical quality and for value for money, dominated the market. High standards in supplies and materials were another hallmark of these companies. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurants in Britain, some suppliers regarded its standards as “too good for consumers” and were puzzled why McDonald’s wanted to “spoil” them.15 At Mars, quality control verged on perfectionism. It was said of Forrest Mars that if he spotted even a pinpoint irregularity in a chocolate coating or a wrapper, he would have the whole batch thrown out. In the automobile industry, it was an American company, Ford, that in the 1950s first introduced proper standards in after-sales service. (A collapse in quality control and reliability was one of the main causes of the later decline of the American car companies). Even the Hollywood movie studios followed the basic marketing principle of offering a quality product and of adapting it to the consumer. Large teams of writers produced draft after draft as they polished and perfected the scripts; viewer reactions in test screenings prompted last-minute alterations (as in Fatal Attraction) to maximise audience appeal. The emphasis on the product did not imply any high-minded distaste for advertising. Indeed, the ‘adspend’ of American companies was usually larger than that of their British competitors. But their advertising typically reflected the same functionalist bias, with a hard-sell emphasis on product performance and user benefits, while the British, as suggested above, tended increasingly to prefer the soft sell. In the ‘blade wars’ of the 1960s, the Wilkinson ads highlighted the company’s glorious past, appealing to patriotic emotion, while the Gillette ads focused on the blades themselves.

26That is not to suggest that the American companies were product fetishists. In fact they brought their systematic approach and intensive use of market research to every aspect of their products: the brand name, colour, size, ‘feel’, fragrance, packaging, advertising, mode of distribution, after-sales service etc. Anything about the product that affected consumers, their attitude to it, and their willingness to purchase it, was to be made as pleasing and satisfying as possible. Even the mundane matters of ordering, purchasing, and delivery could be made more convenient and user-friendly. Avon’s direct-sales method, introduced in Britain in 1959, was so popular that the company gained brand leadership in a number of cosmetics markets in less then ten years; Dell introduced telephone sales of computers; Domino’s was the first to provide home delivery of pizza (in 1985). McDonald’s and Wal-Mart offered cheerful service in addition to their low prices. Toll-free telephone numbers, to encourage customer feedback, were displayed on packaging and in television commercials.

27What made the marketing of the American companies so effective was the remarkably thorough and systematic way in which they went about it. At every stage there was rigorous testing, both of the products themselves and of consumer reactions; and at the end of the process came the test market, enabling the company to gauge demand and to do any last-minute fine-tuning before deciding whether to launch the product nationally. It is true that there was a downside to the process. It was inflexible - at Procter & Gamble, it is said, the entire procedure was written down in a book, and managers were required to follow it to the letter - and it was slow. Procter sometimes kept a new product in test market for years, allowing swift-footed competitors to bring out their own products, and market them nationally, while Procter was still poring over sales figures from Newcastle or Cleethorpes. But by and large American-style marketing worked well. The American companies prospered with it, and by the early 1960s their British counterparts were anxious to follow suit.

  • 16 Many women went into marketing, and though few rose to the top in manufacturing companies they hav (...)

28How then did British companies learn the new approach? There were three main intermediaries: American manufacturers, American advertising agencies, and the academic marketing experts at American business schools. Probably the most important of the three were the big American manufacturing companies themselves. A few of these companies - Procter & Gamble and Mars and one or two others - emerged as a kind of marketing elite, with a sophistication and professionalism that commanded respect not only by their immediate British rivals but throughout the consumer sector. They not only practiced marketing, moreover, but also taught it. The ‘classical’ training they provided for their able young British graduate recruits was by common consent the best marketing education in the country; Mars and Procter, along with Unilever, were often referred to as ‘universities’ of marketing. Many of the managers they trained eventually went on to other British companies, where they introduced the new methods and often had successful careers. Mars alone counted among its ‘graduates’ in 1997 a remarkable number of chief executives of British companies, including Lord Blyth (Boots), Allan Leighton (Asda) and John Clare (Dixons); Procter could add many more. Nearly all were thoroughgoing marketing men.16

29Almost as important as the manufacturers, though virtually ignored in the academic literature, were the American-owned advertising agencies. It is well known that in the late 1950s and 1960s, the key period for the growth of marketing, they dominated British advertising. What has been overlooked is the fact that they not only produced advertising for their clients but also acted as what would now be called marketing consultants. Market research was one of their specialities, as we have seen, and they were still doing missionary work for research in this period, gently suggesting to sceptical clients that accurate information about their customers might well be to the company’s advantage. But agencies advised their clients on the entire range of marketing topics - packaging, positioning, brand names, retailing and distribution, new product development, even the formulation of the products themselves. Rowntree’s relationship with J. Walter Thompson, formed in the 1930s, was of this kind, involving marketing as well as advertising; the agency was still advising on the marketing of After Eights in the early 1960s. When senior advertising executives look back on the early post-war decades and describe their relationships with clients, the same phrases recur: “we did their marketing for them”, “we introduced them to marketing”, “we taught them how to do it”. Agencies like JWT also taught it to their own junior staff, some of whom (like Ernest Saunders) subsequently went on to have marketing-based careers in manufacturing companies. Until the mid-1960s there was more marketing expertise in the agencies than in most of their client companies.

30The third source of American marketing wisdom was marketing academics at US business schools. A few of the younger generation of British marketers (such as Archie Norman, later of Woolworth, Asda, and the Conservative Party) even went to America to hear the gospel at first hand. But it was not necessary to cross the Atlantic. Students at British business schools were taught marketing as an essentially American discipline, with American textbooks and an overwhelmingly American academic literature. Even now, the most widely used textbook is by Philip Kotler, at Northwestern, and it is American authorities who dominate the field.

31This argument about the Americanisation of British marketing needs to be qualified in two ways. In the first place, the pioneers of marketing included a few British companies. Unilever, the outstanding example, was an early convert to market research, and several of its operating companies (notably Lever Brothers) practiced the new methods with great success; it was the only British company to rank alongside Mars and Procter in the marketing elite. Respected too were Cadbury and Rowntree (with help from its American advertising agency), which competed with Mars on more or less equal terms. Among the British advertising agencies, London Press Exchange was a notable advocate of market research, establishing a research department in the early 1930s.

  • 17 H.G. Lazell, “The Years in Beechams”, Management Today, Nov. 1968, p. 76.

32The second qualification is that the Americanisation of British companies was always partial and uneven. Even in retailing, certain important features of the American approach never took root in Britain. The pervasive discounting and price-cutting in the US contrasts with its relative weakness in Britain; when British retailers entered the American market, they were shocked to find price competition which by British standards was positively ferocious - and which was the main reason why so many of these ventures failed. Nor did the American attitude that ‘the customer is always right’ make much headway in Britain. Even when the transplanting process was more successful, the result usually diverged from the American original. British market research still differs from American, both in the structure of the industry and in its research methods; although the British now use the American term ‘focus group’, the groups themselves are conducted in quite different ways in the two countries. British supermarkets, similarly, adopted American innovations without in any way becoming clones of the Americans. Indeed, own-label products, many of them innovative and of high quality, have been developed far more energetically and profitably in Britain than in America; at Sainsbury and Tesco they account for well over half of the sales of branded goods, a much higher proportion than in any of the American chains. On the other hand, although British companies were quick to accept the marketing principle, they rarely matched the Americans’ thoroughness and dedication. The British were duly impressed by the American seriousness but did not often emulate it, and perhaps did not want to. A British view of the situation in the late 1960s was offered by H.G. Lazell, a former chairman of Beecham, a company that had rather innocently launched some of its products in America in the 1950s and had had to learn the new marketing in a hurry. “The main lesson I learnt from the US”, he wrote, “was the thoroughness with which Americans went about their marketing processes... In America I was brought into contact with market research and consumer research. We use these techniques over here, but not so thoroughly or so seriously as the Americans”.17


33American companies were more successful in British consumer markets than anywhere else in Europe. But the consequences were not what they seemed. The Americanisation of British consumer habits was superficial, while the Americanisation of British consumer goods businesses, though less visible, was deep and lasting.

34If that is a paradox, it is easy to resolve. When British consumers purchased products from American companies, most of the products had either been developed in Britain or adapted to British tastes and habits. But when British companies embraced marketing, they had to make real changes in the way they operated. A marketing-oriented business was very different from a production-oriented one. The notion that marketing (and business in general) required training and professionalism; that deciding and designing what to produce was as important as actually producing it; that cheap, mass-produced products should be taken as seriously as luxury goods; that everything about a product should be tailored to suit the customers (even when most of them were working-class housewives); that a concern with such products and customers could be a fitting career for university graduates: these were new ideas in British business.



[Anon.] 1995. “Affairs of the Hair”, Soap Perfumery Cosmetics, June.

[Anon.] 2001. Fast Food and Home Delivery Outlets, London, Key Note.

Barnes E.W 1973. Ad: An Inside View of Advertising, London, Bachman and Turner.

Burnett J. 1999. Liquid Pleasures: A social history of drinks in modern Britain, London, Routledge.

Dunning J.H. 1958. American Investment in British Manufacturing Industry, London, George Allen & Unwin.

Dunning J.H. 1971. (ed.), The Multinational Enterprise, London, George Allen & Unwin.

Figura J. 1991. “Colgate-Palmolive: the Global Scope of Soap”, HBA Today, winter.

Lazell H.G. 1968. “The Years in Beechams”, Management Today, November.

Love J. F. 1987. McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, London, Bantam Press.

McMillan J. and B. Harris 1968. The American Take-Over of Britain, London, Leslie Frewin.

Pendergrast M. 1993. For God, Country and Coca-Cola, New York, Scribners.

Seth A., and G. Randall 1999. The Grocers, London, Kogan Page.

Steuer M., and J. Gennard 1971. “Industrial relations, labour disputes and labour utilization in foreign-owned firms in the UK”, in J.H. Dunning (ed.), The Multinational Enterprise, London, George Allen & Unwin, ch. 4.

Turner G. 1971. Business in Britain, Harmondsworth, Penguin.


1 J. McMillan and B. Harris, The American Take-Over of Britain, London, Leslie Frewin, 1968, p. 1-3.

2 J.H. Dunning, American Investment in British Manufacturing Industry, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1958.

3 J. Figura, “Colgate-Palmolive: the Global Scope of Soap”, HBA Today, winter 1991, p.12.

4 Dr K. Kirchmayr of Henkel UK, quoted in [Anon.], “Affairs of the Hair”, Soap Perfumery Cosmetics, June 1995, p. 67.

5 [Anon.], Fast Food and Home Delivery Outlets, London, Key Note, 2001, Table 3.

6 M. Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola, New York, Scribners, 1993, p. 376.

7 J. Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A social history of drinks in modern Britain, London, Routledge, 1999, p. 107.

8 Ibid., p 104.

9 A. Seth and G. Randall, The Grocers, London, Kogan Page, 1999, p. 107.

10 Guardian, 8 April 1996.

11 Dunning, 1958: ch.9.

12 M. Steuer and J. Gennard, “Industrial relations, labour disputes and labour utilization in foreign-owned firms in the UK”, in J.H. Dünning, (ed.), The Multinational Enterprise, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1971, ch.4.

13 G. Turner, Business in Britain, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971, p. 229.

14 E.W. Barnes, Ad: An Inside View of Advertising, London, Bachman and Turner, 1973, p. 51.

15 J. F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, London, Bantam Press, 1987, p. 443.

16 Many women went into marketing, and though few rose to the top in manufacturing companies they have held senior marketing posts in those companies and played leading roles in agencies.

17 H.G. Lazell, “The Years in Beechams”, Management Today, Nov. 1968, p. 76.


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