America has a national saleswoman. Charlotte Beer, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, formerly CEO of the J Walter Thompson advertising agency, was appointed by Colin Powell to work on international perceptions of the US.
We should learn from our transatlantic cousins. Our "national brand" - international perceptions of us as reflected in research and through media stereotypes - is muddled and often downright negative. Our actual performance, however, on a host of indicators from the economic to cultural quality of life, is pretty good.
National brands continue to drive people's expectations. Consider a basic product - let's say a pen - and label it with four different major national origins - American, French, Italian and British - and then see what characteristics people attribute to it each time. The American pen will be seen as high-tech and thrusting, the French one as sophisticated and romantic, the Italian hugely stylish and well designed. But the British pen will be assumed to be solid and stodgy, with archaic design. And we know - we've actually carried out this experiment.
Research projects carried out across the world for the British Council, by the corporate identity business Wolff Olins and by the advertising agency BMP, show that foreigners think we're past it, that we had an empire and no longer do, but remain a hierarchical country populated by aloof, repressed people obsessed with class and the monarchy. There's a host of contradictory impressions, from Britpop to Ann Hathaway's cottage (and somewhere in there is an underexploited reputation for probity, too), which somehow cancel each other out.
National branding matters in the international competition for markets, investment and people. The competition for markets is obvious - it is about exports, goods and services, trade following the flag. The inward investment market is about attracting foreign capital into the UK and getting it behind UK inventions, setting up factories in the north-east and design studios in Soho. But the competition for people, for mobile international talent in management and the professions - the kinds of people who can choose where they work or study, who can make trade-offs between pay, quality of life and quality of learning - is crucial.
That is why so many cities and countries and regions are consciously engaged in marketing themselves now, using strategies, budgets, brands and position statements. It is no accident that when the chattering classes, the inward investment classes, the mobile talent classes, think about Spain, they think of the Bilbao Guggenheim, the new Barcelona culture, and Almodovar's films. It is a planned campaign to attach interesting contemporary cultural values to Spain.
The most effective of these campaigns use culture to promote locations. Simon Anholt, an advertising man who specialises in making international advertising work, argued recently that culture had an essential role in developing a country's image precisely because "culture is self-evidently 'not for sale' ". It adds a complementary depth to the basic proposition.
Thus far, Britain has drawn a great deal of global tourism - a success that involves playing up the Fantasy Island/History and Punk side of British life, a very different message from the high-design, high-technology picture sold by, say, the Design Council. We punch above our weight in the foreign policy arena. These efforts remain vital, but we need to support a single theme that really matters to the group we most want to reach. This group is the "successor generation": business-school graduates, the top-level talent pool, the next cohort of investment decision takers, the people who will decide whether they or their businesses should be in the UK in 2010.
We have huge potential appeal for that successor generation. The City, the language, elite parts of the education system (as much the London School of Economics and Imperial College as Oxbridge), the relative freedom - by European standards - for entrepreneurs. We need to show how these strengths amount to a really attractive business culture as a whole - and to an attractive society, too. For if misconceptions about our national brand limit business opportunities, the picture of an unfair society with big social divisions limits the authority of our diplomatic initiatives.
We need to set up a national organisation with a clear integrating role and a budget. Politicians have been reluctant thus far - there are no votes in it, it's long-haul, and anything involving the words "task force", "brand" or "marketing" is profoundly embarrassing to the government now. Yet this is what we need. Telling the natives that things are great may be a redundant art, but employing those skills outside the tent - that's another story.
Chris Powell is chairman of the advertising agency BMP DDB. Peter York is managing director of the management consultancy SRU Ltd