IN recent years, venturing into a supermarket has all too often felt like a visit to the grocery aisle of an Orange Order parade.

You only popped in for bread and milk (and butter, once you have arranged a mortgage for it), but are confronted with wall-to-wall Union flags and declarations about the best of British. For many in Scotland, it transforms a necessary chore into a jarring and alienating experience.

It will get even worse this year when King Charles #NotMySpaniel has his obscenely expensive, tone-deaf and insensitive coronation. We will be in for another bout of royal flummery and sycophancy during which British supermarket chains will shoehorn Union flags, bunting and declarations of loyalty to the crown into your grocery shopping experience, whether you welcome it or not.

You can't really blame supermarkets for seeking marketing opportunities – that is, after all, very much what their business is based upon. However, a problem arises when marketing strategies primarily designed to appeal to shoppers in England are foisted upon a Scottish populace which has a distinct identity and a political culture which is increasingly divergent from that which prevails in England, where marketing decisions and strategies of the major supermarket chains are devised.

Semiotics is the study of symbols and objects, and the meanings that they communicate. The meaning of the Union flag symbol is radically different in Scotland from the meaning and emotional connotations that it conveys in England. Supermarket marketing and branding departments are in dire need of a lesson in the semiotics of British symbolism in Scotland.

It is commonplace around the world for food retailers to appeal to national pride in order to sell their products. An academic study of the semiotics of retail butter packaging comparing butter sold in British and Swedish supermarkets found that both made references to national identity in their packaging. However, flag imagery and coloration was more prominent in British packaging, with more emphasis being placed on “patriotic” imagery and red, white and blue colouring following the Brexit vote in 2016 – an event which saw many grocery products redesign their packaging in order to highlight the product's British origin.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Swedish and British markets is that Sweden is a single nation state, whereas the United Kingdom is a (theoretically) voluntary union of different nations.

For an English market, a Union flag can have a politically neutral significance which it cannot possess in Scotland. Both Conservative and Labour voters in England can feel that a Union flag is a symbol that is inclusive of them and that remains the case whether they voted Remain or Leave in the EU referendum – note that Keir Starmer has been almost as eager as the Conservatives to embrace Union flag branding. 

However, the situation in Scotland is radically different. Union flags have always read differently in Scotland where they are strongly associated with one side in Scotland's traditional sectarian divide, and are perceived as a symbol of division and exclusion by a large part of the Scottish population.

This existing value of the Union flag as a symbol of division and exclusion was only compounded by the 2014 independence referendum. The primary value in Scotland of the Union flag as a symbol is that of opposition to independence, meaning that half or more of a supermarket chain's Scottish customers now read Union-flag branding as an active disincentive which puts them off purchasing a product.

This is particularly the case with Scottish products. According to a poll commissioned by this newspaper, an overwhelming majority of shoppers in Scotland would prefer to see Saltire branding on Scottish products instead of Union-flag branding, which many perceive as a cancellation of a product's Scottish origin. Just 16% of shoppers in Scotland preferred to see Union-flag branding on Scottish products. This is a preference which cuts across political divides – even a majority of Conservative voters in Scotland would rather see a Saltire on Scottish products than a Union flag. 

A marketing decision made in England, designed to make Scottish products appeal to English shoppers, has the opposite effect in Scotland, where it works to actively alienate and annoy Scottish shoppers.

Supermarket branding is a small instance of the everyday negation of Scottishness which characterises post-Brexit Britain, but this is yet another example of how this supposed union does not work for Scotland.

However, unlike the Conservative Party, supermarket chains are responsive to customer feedback – their business depends on it. The more of us in Scotland who reject Union-flag branded products and who let the supermarkets know why we are doing so, the more likely it becomes that their marketing departments will get the message and hold back on the jack in Scotland.

This piece is an extract from today’s REAL Scottish Politics newsletter, which is emailed out at 7pm every weekday with a round-up of the day's top stories and exclusive analysis from the Wee Ginger Dug.

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