- We used artificial intelligence to identify food and landmarks in 20,000 images on UK tourist board and food-promotion Instagram accounts
- Full breakfast was the most common British breakfast on Instagram, while fish and chips and cream tea were the most common dinner and dessert
- But, in everyday life, Brits said they’re more likely to eat cereal, curry and ice cream
- Pancakes, avocado on toast, veg salad and chocolate brownies were among the top British foods on Instagram, but the Brits and Americans we asked said they aren’t ‘British’
- Americans weren’t great at recognising British classics: 39% thought toad in the hole was called ‘slug in the rug’
- But Brits failed to recognise many British landmarks: Only half of us correctly named St Paul’s Cathedral when shown its photo
- Northern Irish landmarks were the ones Brits and Americans most wanted to visit, but Northern Ireland had less than its fair share of images on tourist board accounts
Exploring Britain's 'Insta Brand'
Think of a typical British person, in a British landscape, eating a British meal. What do you see? The answer depends on where you’re from and what’s influenced your perception of Britain. To explore how the image of Britain we show the world differs from how people see our country, we collected photos of Britain from the ultimate platform for image and branding: Instagram. A large part of understanding a culture is learning what we eat and where we go, so we analysed images on Instagram accounts that promote British food and landmarks.
We used machine learning to identify which foods and landmarks featured most often in 20,000 images of Britain on Instagram. Then we spoke to 1,012 Brits and Americans (who visit the UK more than anyone1) to find out which of those foods and landmarks are the best recognised and best loved.
Should cereal or pancakes be considered ‘British’ breakfasts?
We collected images of food from accounts dedicated to showcasing Great British grub, including the UK government’s account for promoting British food and drink (@greatbritishfood) and Great British Food Magazine’s official account (@gbf_mag). We also collected images recently posted by the public that were tagged with #britishfood. We identified food within the images using Google’s Vision AI, which also categorised foods by meal type.
Here are the foods that were identified as breakfast meals.
Full English breakfast, or variants of it, accounted for 1 in 4 British breakfasts on Instagram, making it more than six times more Instagrammed than other British breakfasts. People agreed that the full English is as deserving as any other meal to be crowned the typical British brekkie: Only 6.1% of Brits inexplicably thought a cooked breakfast isn’t ‘British’, and 12.9% of Americans thought the same. Four in 10 Brits we spoke to said they have a fry up at least once a month.
Eggs on toast and toast in other forms were viewed like the fry up: Many Brits regularly enjoy them during their morning routines and few people thought they weren’t truly British breakfasts.
British food may not be the best of Europe's cuisine but the full English breakfast is the undisputed king of all breakfasts!
- 37-year-old British man
More than two-thirds of Brits regularly start their day with cereal, more than any other breakfast meal in the Instagram top 10. But cereal isn’t as ‘gram-worthy as the celebrated fry up, making up just 2.8% of British breakfasts on Instagram. When asked which breakfasts were truly British, cereal caused the most disagreement between Brits and Americans – 93.1% of Brits saw no problem in labelling cereal ‘British’ but 60.3% of Americans disagreed. Cereal, at least the kind children dream of, is an American classic which arguably influenced British equivalents. So perhaps the Americans were staking their claim to it.
Other contentious inclusions in the top 10 British breakfasts on Instagram were pancakes (54.1% of Brits said this isn’t British food) and sweet pastries such as croissants (54.5%). And 4 in 10 Brits were unwilling to add avocado on toast, and other open-faced sandwiches, to their menu of British classics.
Is burger and chips the new British classic?
Despite changes to British people’s diet over the years, it’s clear from our results that, for now at least, fish and chips and the Sunday roast are still deservedly our most quintessentially British meals2.
Fish and chips featured in 20.5% of lunch or dinner images on Instagram, twice as many as any other main meal of the day, including even the sacred Sunday roast (11.2%). However, our results revealed three other dishes that are hot on the tails of our favoured fish.
Vegetarian salad was described as #britishfood on Instagram as many times as Sunday roast (11.2% of lunch/dinner images). That said, the British public has spoken otherwise: Less than 1 in 5 Brits said a veggie salad is part of their regular diet, and 39.2% said it shouldn’t be considered a British meal (51.8% of Americans agreed).
Curry has been considered a British classic for some time now and our data supports this, but not emphatically so3. As many Brits told us they regularly have curry (61.6%) as did Sunday roast (61.4%), but 1 in 3 Brits and Americans didn’t consider curry a part of Britain’s own cuisine.
Incidentally, only half as many Brits thought burger and chips isn’t British (15.6%) compared to curry (32.9%), and almost as many Brits eat burger and chips regularly (59.6%) as those who regularly eat any other dish. In fact, more people eat burger and chips at least once a month than those who eat fish and chips. Perhaps burger and chips, then, is the new British classic waiting for its crown?
However, just as they did with cereal, 44.6% of Americans disagreed that burger and chips could be called British, perhaps once more protecting their own culinary heritage.
Are ice cream or chocolate brownies 'British' desserts?
Cream tea was the most common dessert found on British food Insta accounts (8.2% of dessert images). But only 11.4% of Brits told us they actually indulge in a scone at least once a month. Instead, ice cream (61.0% of Brits), cake (49.0%) and chocolate brownies (36.2%) were the most regularly enjoyed treats.
Once again, there were differences in what desserts Brits and Americans thought were British. Half of Americans thought ice cream shouldn’t be considered a British treat, but only 1 in 10 Brits gave it the cold shoulder. Similarly, 21.1% of Brits told us the brownie, our third most enjoyed treat from the Insta top 10, isn’t British food, compared to 59.7% of Americans.
At every meal of the day, we’ve seen cases where the image of British food presented online is at odds with what we actually eat and consider British. We’ve also seen that Americans’ perception of British food can differ from our own. But how well do they even know our food?
Alternative British classics: slug in the rug and crusty pudding
We gauged Americans’ knowledge of British classics by asking them to guess the names of four pictured meals from lists that included equally plausible, but utterly ridiculous alternatives.
Of the four classics we showed Americans – toad in the hole, cream tea, fruit crumble, and bangers and mash – they were the worst at correctly naming cream tea. Americans most often guessed ‘English muffin with jam and cream’ (39% of guesses). Tempted by the word ‘biscuit’, which over the pond is a savoury scone, 26% of Americans thought the dish was ‘Custard cream biscuits’. Another 24% inadvertently made the same mistake, calling a cream tea ‘Jammie dodgers’. Only 9% of Americans got the name right.
Americans were also bad at identifying toad in the hole. So bad that more Americans thought our beloved sausage and batter amalgam was called ‘slug in the rug’ (39%) than those who named it correctly (32%).
But it’s not all bad news for Americans. Two-thirds named fruit crumble correctly, although 1 in 4 guessed ‘crusty pudding’. Three-quarters knew bangers and mash.
Of course, food isn’t the only aspect of British culture to be misunderstood or otherwise viewed differently overseas. The 38 million tourists visiting Blighty’s shores each year often come for the landmarks and landscapes that are imbued with history and British charm4.
Half of Brits can’t identify St Paul’s Cathedral from an image
We identified the landmarks found most often on UK tourist board Instagram accounts, including one account for each nation and a fifth account with a country-wide remit. Then we asked Brits and Americans to name those landmarks and say if they’d like to visit them.
London dominates British tourism, with half of all visitors flocking to the capital4. The images of Britain presented on @lovegreatbritain, the UK-wide tourist board account, are similarly London-centric.
The three most featured British landmarks on Instagram were the Houses of Parliament (5.7% of images with landmarks), St Paul’s Cathedral (3.5%), and Tower Bridge (3.3%) – all found in London. The British tourist board isn’t just London-centric; it’s England-centric, too. Eight of the 10 most featured landmarks are found in England, the other two – Eilean Donan Castle (2.3%) and Edinburgh Castle (2.0%) – are in Scotland.
The Brits and Americans we spoke to were better at identifying London landmarks, although Brits weren’t always as good as you’d expect.
The most well-known landmark was Tower Bridge, with 94.1% of Brits and 64.4% of Americans identifying it. Although plenty of people made the mistake of calling it London Bridge, a different bridge altogether (29% of Brits and 38% of Americans). Given that they clearly recognised it as a bridge in London, we gave them the benefit of the doubt anyway.
More than 9 in 10 Brits could name the Houses of Parliament, or at least Big Ben, when shown its picture. Almost 62% of Americans achieved the same feat.
St Paul’s Cathedral, an iconic part of London’s history and skyline, was correctly named by only 53.8% of British people we spoke to, meaning almost half of Brits can’t identify St Paul’s Cathedral from its image. One in 10 Americans recognised St Paul’s, but among the 90% who didn’t were the 3% of Americans who thought it was the White House and an equal number who guessed St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
The best-recognised landmark in the Instagram top 10 that can be found outside the capital was The Shambles in York (29% of Brits recognised it). Two wishful-thinking American muggles guessed Diagon Alley from ‘Harry Potter’.
Ten percent of Brits recognised Gold Hill, but only 2% knew it by its actual name – the other 8% remembered it as the setting for the best TV ad since sliced bread, naming it ‘Hovis Hill’5.
Brits were poor at recognising landmarks outside of London’s iconic buildings. This either suggests Brits should study up on their tourist hot spots or that the UK tourist board is effectively drawing people’s attention to Blighty’s lesser known sites.
With a few exceptions, the landmarks that featured most often in tourist board images were also the landmarks people recognised the most. But the best-recognised landmarks aren’t necessarily the ones people would most like to visit.
Houses of Parliament
Northern Ireland has some of the UK’s most attractive landmarks
We found the five most featured landmarks from each of the UK’s four nations to build a balanced nationwide top 20 list. Then we asked Brits and Americans to pick which three landmarks from our shortlist they’d most like to visit.
Of our top 20, Giant’s Causeway was the landmark most people would like to visit – 53.5% of Brits and 38.1% of Americans put it in their top three. The second most popular was Edinburgh Castle, which almost 1 in 3 Brits and 1 in 4 Americans told us they wanted to visit more than other British landmarks. Roughly 1 in 4 Brits and Americans had Carrick Island among their top choices, making it the third most popular.
The five most featured landmarks from each UK nation brought up some lesser known tourist sites, some of which weren’t popular choices but others fared better than more recognisable places. For example, St Paul’s Cathedral came 11th and Tower Bridge came in 10th on the list of landmarks people would most like to visit, behind Dunrobin Castle (ninth), Gold Hill (eighth), and Titanic Belfast (fifth) – the likes of which may be the landmarks that deserve more recognition and promotion as attractive places to visit in the UK.
The five most promoted Welsh landmarks on tourist board Instagram accounts were all castles and ruins, none of which scored highly in our popularity contest. But three of Northern Ireland’s five landmarks in our balanced top 20 list made it into the public’s top five selections of the most attractive landmarks.
If landmarks from one nation tend to be popular choices to visit, but that nation gets less than its fair share of images on tourist board accounts, then perhaps that nation deserves more attention as an attractive tourist destination. That’s exactly what we found for Northern Ireland.
Three of Northern Ireland’s landmarks – Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede and Titanic Belfast – were among the most desirable places to visit from our list, but only 2.9% of landmark images found on UK tourist board accounts were taken in Northern Ireland, even after accounting for the fact that some tourist board accounts are more active than others.
Nations work hard to build a ‘brand image’6. If you knew nothing about British culture and used images on Instagram to learn what our national brand was, you’d picture a British person eating a full English breakfast, fish and chips, or a cream tea, with iconic landmarks of London’s skyline in the background.
But the average Brit is more likely to be eating cereal, burger and chips, or ice cream, and if they were anywhere they’d like to be, you’d see the orderly columns of Giant’s Causeway in the background, not London’s towers.
The majority of Brits saw no problem with calling burger and chips a ‘British’ meal, and we eat it just as often as the traditional classics, so maybe it’s time we labelled it as such. The British public was less accepting of vegetarian salads, or even curries, despite them also ending up on many of our plates. Either way, the image of a typical British dish has changed.
As far as landmarks and tourist hotspots are concerned, our results show a real interest in visiting the natural beauty of Northern Ireland. So perhaps the image of a British holiday, in the minds of Brits and foreigners alike, should include less of the capital and more of the country?
Britain needs to show off more of its coastline and natural areas. The only thing that comes to mind when I think of Britain is London, Stonehenge and sheep farms. It has beautiful natural open areas and could attract outdoor enthusiasts such as hikers and kayakers.
- 33 year old American man
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To build Britain’s international image that it portrays to the world, we collected 19,984 images from Instagram accounts that can be considered authorities on what is British food and what landmarks and tourist sites Britain has to offer. We collected images of food from the UK government’s ‘Food is GREAT’ campaign promoting British food and drink (@greatbritishfood), Great British Food Magazine’s official account (@gbf_mag), and we also collected over 5,000 of the most recent images that were tagged with #britishfood. We collected images of British landmarks from official tourist board Instagram accounts, including the British tourist board (@lovegreatbritain) and the independent tourist board for each UK nation (@discoverni, @visitengland, @visitscotland, and @visitwales). When combining the occurrence of landmarks across multiple tourist board accounts, we weighted for account activity so that nations with more active Instagram accounts didn’t bias the relative frequency of landmarks. We used Google’s Vision AI machine learning algorithm to identify every food dish and tourist location within all 19,984 images.
We contrasted Britain’s international image online with British and American people’s perceptions of British culture by surveying 1,012 people (504 Americans and 508 Brits). We showed people lists of the food and landmarks that occurred most frequently in the Instagram images we analysed, and then tested people’s knowledge and opinions on those food and landmarks. The popularity of food or landmarks from our survey results should be interpreted as relative to other food or landmarks people were shown, not relative to others that weren’t included in this analysis.