British consumers could be forgiven for breathing a collective sigh of relief. The nation has survived the financial Armageddon which was played out on a daily basis in a media that many feel should share the blame for the country's woes. The maxim that fear of failure is often worse than failure itself rings true, and the picture that emerges of British society in the first half of 2009 is of a country picking up the pieces and looking ahead.
However, the latest ‘Moody Britain' research from McCann Erickson confirms that consumers feel angrier than ever. Let down by banks, politicians and the media, the public is in a less than buoyant mood. While various pundits have continued to pontificate on the exact shape and form of the ever-elusive recovery, for consumers the ups and downs of the FTSE 100 are not the definitive indicator of the state of the economy. In fact, for most, this has been a personal - almost imagined - recession, and recovery in sentiment in many ways supersedes our collective obsession with economic indicators.
The first recession of the 21st century existed within a media context of rolling news channels and an unprecedented fixation with the internet. The limitless publication possibilities of the web led to a feeding frenzy in the media, and, at the end of 2008, it was awash with words such as ‘meltdown' and ‘collapse'. So it was understandable that many consumers were panicking.
However, the Moody Britain report is not entirely gloomy, despite all the redundancies and other pressures that many consumers have faced in the past 12 months, often through no fault of their own. The research reveals that some consumers are ‘appreciating the collective cultural detox' following the credit-fuelled excesses of the boom years. An increased emphasis on the home is evident in the research and there is a clear feeling that many are taking stock and reassessing their lives, in particular spending habits.
As people ditch status brands, and in the context of a collective guilt over the credit crisis, brands need to adopt a fresh sensitivity and convince consumers they are genuine.
The myth of the Blitz spirit
‘The government is making me hate this country. I used to be dead proud of being English and now I hate the place. I don't want to move away because I love Newcastle and my family and friends, but I hate England. I hate being English. It's so embarrassing... the whole world laughs at England.'
Moody Britain respondent
Appeals to the ‘Blitz spirit' might make British consumers feel good, but this sense of communities working together to overcome adversity is largely imagined and based on myth, according to Moody Britain.
The research revealed little sense of unity in recessionary Britain. Although 44% of consumers said that they believed the UK economy would be in a better state in 12 months, only 27% claimed their personal finances would improve in the same time frame. It is vital for brands to be aware of the difference between the economic recession and consumers' ‘personal recession'.
There is no feeling that Britain is ‘in it together', and for many the recession will be over only when they feel financially secure, regardless of what Robert Peston or Mervyn King might be telling them. The continuing disconnection of the country from its own citizens is clear - 20% of consumers value ‘being British' even less as a result of the recession.
The rise of the canny consumer
MoneySaving Expert founder Martin Lewis is the ‘most searched for individual online' in the UK in the last quarter of 2008, according to Hitwise data. Indeed Lewis beating Barack Obama by 11%, illustrating the prevalence of the canny consumer.
Moody Britain observes that these thrifty consumers have emerged from every stratum of society. Indeed, the research confirms that while the personal recession is imagined for some consumers (those for whom low interest rates mean they are actually better off, thanks to, say, lower mortgage payments), they too are undergoing a period of self-flagellation and reassessing their spending.
Surprisingly, AB consumers are more likely than DE consumers to be ‘worried about feeding their family'. There is a clear lack of rational thinking underpinning these concerns, particularly among the relatively affluent, for whom the likelihood of financial suffering is more remote.
This shift in attitudes to spending is reflected by research from uSwitch, which showed that 74% of shoppers now regularly use money-off coupons, compared with 26% last year.
‘The consumer may be ready to shop again but the recession has led to permanent behavioural change, and the change in behaviour is being led by the consumer, not us,' says Andy Bond, chief executive of Asda. ‘We are following consumers, not leading them, and as an industry we need to get ahead to stay in the game.'
There are also signs that consumers are becomingly increasingly risk-averse when it comes to their jobs. A number of respondents to Moody Britain felt that employers were taking advantage of the recession, with one remarking: ‘The fear of redundancy, whether it's a reality or not, will lead employees to believe that it's better the devil you know than the devil you don't.'
In fact, 59% of British workers said they valued their job more because of the recession. This figure rose to 69% among 25- to 34-year-olds who had previously embraced a job-hopping mentality.
An indifferent isle
When it comes to politics, the British public is apathetic. Depressingly, while some respondents spoke out passionately against the BNP, many weren't even sure they would bother to vote in next year's general election. A large proportion of Moody Britain's respondents seemed happy to passively accept a Conservative government in 2010.
However, this is not to say that David Cameron is expected to preside over a Tory landslide - if the respondents are proved correct, Labour's defeat will not be as seismic for Westminster as its victory in 1997 was.
Comments such as ‘they're all the same anyway' and ‘they can't be as bad as the other lot' demonstrated an electorate disillusioned with the political process in general and politicians in particular.
The advent of ‘real heroes'
The phenomenal success of ITV's Britain's Got Talent, and Channel 4's decision to axe Big Brother, provide a snapshot of the country's shifting values. According to the research, the public are increasingly interested in people with genuine and remarkable talent, rather than those who have become famous for sitting around a house in their underwear.
Indeed, one of the biggest trends identified by Moody Britain was the palpable backlash against the culture of celebrity.
This shift can also be seen in consumers' expectations of brands. Brands can no longer justify themselves by providing consumers with a status symbol. Instead, people want their brands to be genuine - in March 2008, 68% of respondents said they preferred a brand to be ‘genuine' rather than provide status, a trend that had risen to 82% in June 2009.
Status brands fell out of favour on the catwalk years ago. Now this trend is being played out in homes across the UK where status brands have ultimately come to be seen as part of the financial problem.
The brands that will prosper in these hard times are those that can prove their authenticity and expertise. In line with this, the research identified an increase in brands trying to show they can help people - that they are useful, rather than simply something that is nice to have.
The shift to what one might call ‘real hero brands' is already evident in advertising, where supermarkets such as Asda and Morrisons have moved away from celebrity-fronted campaigns in favour of those featuring members of staff. The supermarket sector as a whole, always concerned with promoting the value of its products, has also adopted a simple language in its advertising.
As a result, supermarkets are more trusted than any other institution in the UK, with the research showing consumers put more faith in them than in the government, banks and airlines. Whether this faith is enough to quell the nation's collective anger remains to be seen.
Moody Britain: Britain's Personal Recession
While economists and business leaders continue to dither over what form the recovery will take, marketers should be focused on how consumers are responding to the downturn. Ironically many consumers are actually better off than they were 12 months ago - but their ‘imagined recession' and their sense of impending doom is taking its toll on their spending habits.
Here the research identifies how four key group's of consumers have been affected by the recession.
Families are the group which feel most vulnerable and the cost of living remains a key source of concern for this group. Lower income mothers have become ‘supermarket tourists' shopping about various brands for the best deals.
Older families are also faced with the duel dilemma of older children returning to the nest and managing the care of elderly relatives who require care.
According to the research in order to compete with these competing demands families are becoming increasingly ‘professional' in their approach to finances. Families are investing in each other's businesses, stepping in to share the load with money and support where needed.
High levels of anxiety and uncertainty over their future career prospects have left the 18 to 34 year old age group facing the sharp end of the recession.
Many youngsters are responding to this increased anxiety by throwing themselves into work experience and internships or looking to extend their education or take gap years.
Younger consumers have also seen their ability to get their first foot on the housing ladder even more arduous. For those who can't rely on the bank of Mum and Dad the lack of available credit combined with house prices creeping back up again have created a tough situation.
The Asian Community
Just 15% of British Asians felt that we ‘are all to blame' for the recession, compared to 28% of their white counterparts.
The buy now pay later credit mentality so beloved of mainstream British society never rang true with large sections of the Asian community. The research supported the view that these consumers - having always used credit sparingly - are making very few changes to their spending.
In fact respondents noted that the thrifty measures which have only recently come into fashion for many consumers have long been adopted by their community.
White Collar Workers
For white collar workers - particularly in London - job security - or the lack thereof it looms large on their consciousness. The overall fear of losing a job has increased from 26% in November 2008 to 31% in June 2009. The idea that a third of the population could loose their jobs is exceptionally unrealistic and highlights the gulf between fear and reality.
Employers are leaning on these workers - who have historically moved upwards and onwards quite quickly.