Rising prices, Gordon Brown and banks top gripes in annual 'Mood of Britain' survey

LONDON - In 10 years, Britain has turned from Cool Britannia to Cruel Britannia as consumers find themselves struggling to make ends meet, according to research from McCann Erickson. The rising cost of living is the biggest issue facing UK consumers, irrespective of their wealth and age.

The agency's annual 'Mood of Britain' survey was this year dubbed 'Moodier Britain' with good reason. With headlines warning daily of the ravages of the credit crunch, combined with spiralling food and fuel prices, the attitudinal study reveals a 'nation holding its breath', presenting a monumental challenge to brands.

In 2007, the country's economic situation was ranked the third-biggest influence on consumers' feelings about Britain. This year, however, it rose to number one - leapfrogging concerns about crime and politics. Consumers across the nation are angry about the increased cost of living, and 'uncertainty' was the word used most frequently by consumer groups to summarise their feelings about living in Britain today.

The lack of confidence regarding Britain's current position in the economic cycle is having a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of its population. As a nation uniquely obsessed with property, the lack of clarity about how much further house prices might fall is having a significant effect on consumer confidence. While once the marketing industry spoke of the 'bath-shaped' recovery, bearish investors now hold forth on the 'wok-shaped recession', where consumers with huge debts and substantial mortgages may find themselves in serious financial strife.

To some extent it is fear of the credit crisis, rather than the credit crisis itself, that has savaged consumer confidence, but the research reveals that the rising cost of living is starting to have a clear impact on consumers' lives. In a focus group in Sheffield, housewives emerged as particularly concerned about rising food costs and the rate at which prices are increasing. One respondent noted: 'My kids love this big cheesy pizza in Iceland: it usually costs £1.55, but last week it went up to £1.75. Prices aren't going up by 1p or 2p, but 20p.'

Elsewhere, young professionals in London, with little hope of getting on the property ladder, lead a contradictory life of personal wealth, typified by exotic holidays and expensive technology, but also often find themselves living in a box room and sharing a bathroom with three strangers, or still residing with their parents.

Expectation is a key issue for this group. They have watched their parents make large amounts of cash on their homes and desire the same level of material wealth. However, their parents' priorities often do not revolve around saving for their children, as the column inches dedicated to the SKI (spending kids inheritance) generation testify, and so they find themselves with little financial security.

Across the board, there is a genuine feeling that the rise in the cost of living is outpacing salary increases, and British consumers are starting to feel short-changed. Unhappy Britons as are also less keen to move abroad in search of sunny climes; without the buffer of rising property prices and economic stability, many are simply not willing to risk such a move or cannot afford it.

What this mood means for brands

There remains a disjuncture between consumers' concerns and their purchasing behaviour. Many consumers who are worried about the impact of the credit crisis have yet to tighten their purse strings. Privately, many analysts believe high-street stores and brands suffering from poor sales are using the credit crunch as an excuse. However, the progressively dour mood of the country presents a substantial challenge for brands.

As consumers face up to their limited spending power, the brands that enable them to do more with their money will prosper. To this end, brands such as Sainsbury's, investing in its 'Feed a family for a fiver' campaign, or Lloyds TSB with its free AirMiles with mortgages initiative, should reap the benefits.

In response to the growing unease over the state of the economy, consumers are retreating further into their personal spheres, according to the research.

This represents an obvious opportunity for those brands that are able to help consumers look after their assets through helpful behaviour.

In the financial-services sector, brands need to offer consumers reassurance, and shift away from the irreverent frivolous approach, which has now become completely out of touch with the mood of British consumers.

Brands should also seek to emphasise their heritage, as, in more uncertain times, consumers are naturally more comfortable with brands that feel familiar and to which they feel connected.

The issues that are making Britain angry:

Gordon Brown

Britain's prime minister has become a figurehead for everything that is wrong with this country, according to McCann Erickson's research. Gordon Brown's unpopularity - and there is no question that his personal ratings with voters are woeful - crosses most age groups and social classes.

The survey revealed that, overall, 31% of Britons are angry with Brown; among the over-65s this figure rises to 47%. Different groups have varying arguments with the prime minister and many older consumers hold him personally responsible for their problems.

The abolition of the 10p tax rate, which was rubbished as a 'stealth tax' designed to penalise the poorest in society, was a particular source of ire.  The increase in the level of disappointment Britain is experiencing this year - up 10% from 2007 - is in large part due to the failure of Brown to lead the kind of revival in Britain's fortunes that everybody had hoped, according to the study.

The banks

There is little doubt among economists that blame for the sub-prime crisis lies squarely with the banks, which took too many risks in mortgage lending. The financial-services sector is also a target for consumer wrath. 'We have been living in a bubble of security for 10 years and the banks have thrown this away,' says Nikki Crumpton, chief strategy officer at McCann Erickson.

The environment

While the environment has been high on the agenda in recent years, consumers' concern about the economy means they are less willing to pay to be green. As a result, the environment has fallen by 14% between 2007 and 2008 as a 'source of sadness' for Britons, and researchers uncovered a significant degree of cynicism surrounding the issue, with the effectiveness of recycling and reduction of CO2 emissions called into question. Many of the groups felt helpless and that their efforts were unlikely to make a real difference.

Brands must therefore be wary of pushing their environmental credentials too hard, but those that can persuade consumers to go green and save money, for example are more likely to succeed.

Crime

Although fear of crime remains disproportionately high in relation to actual crime levels, the increase in indiscriminate, violent crime among young people is having a huge impact. Young people are 11% more angry about crime this year than they were last year, according to the research. One member of a focus group for the survey, who is a young Londoner, said: 'It feels more often that violence happens for no reason.' However, anger about crime had not increased across the total sample.

Terrorism

Terrorism's impact on the day-to-day lives of ordinary Britons has declined significantly over the past year. In 2007, terrorism ranked third in a list of things making people angry about Britain. This year, it has fallen to sixth, overtaken by standards of public services, the cost of living and politics. Part of the reason is that terrorism is viewed as a regional issue and many people living outside the M25 feel that it doesn't affect them. However, even in London, respondents were blase in their attitude toward terrorism saying they were 'desensitised' to the threat.

Immigration

In 2008, the anger surrounding immigration and race has been fuelled by a strong feeling that minorities are unfairly pandered to by local and national government. Immigration angered 59% of people surveyed, compared with 58% in 2007. The causes for the antagonism are grounded in misunderstanding, with many communities regretting the lack of integration. Sport provides one of the few arenas in which these communities can come together. 

The issues of Middle-class debt

In 2005, the broadsheets whipped themselves into a frenzy when former BBC arts correspondent Rosie Millard admitted that her bank account was frozen and her credit-card debts mounting. Unwittingly, she became the face of a fresh sub-section of the middle classes: the impoverished professionals.

The credit crunch is exposing this debt problem, which has been fuelled by a general dissatisfaction and impatience with life, leading people to indulge themselves in their personal life.

Last month, it was revealed that debt-advice agencies are being swamped by demands for help from middle-income families, and middle-class people who borrowed when lending rates were low are feeling the squeeze. Middle-class people are now more likely to slip into debt, despite the traditional view that it is the poorest who are the worst financial managers.

Attitudes toward debt are changing. The excesses of the 'living on credit' lifestyle are becoming more frowned upon and could, according to Crumpton, soon become as unacceptable as smoking.

Types of Britons, from most angry to least angry

The Meldrews

Who are they? Old, downmarket and likely to be found in the West Country, Midlands and Wales.

How are they feeling? Miserable. The government and political system is a particular source of ire, although they are unhappy with nearly everything.

What do they want from brands? 'A brand that understands me'. This group feels cut adrift from the rest of society and misunderstood - hence their need for brands to understand them.

The Left Behinds

Who are they? Young, slightly downmarket and likely to live in London and the South East.

How are they feeling? Disenfranchised, with little sense of identity and belonging. Strong desire to feel more part of something whether that be their family, community, friendship group or Britain as a whole.

What do they want from brands? 'A brand that talks to me on my level'. This group often feels patronised and talked down to.

The Grin and Bear Its        

Who are they? Middle-aged and middle-of-the-road, with no particular regional bias.

How are they feeling? Concerned, rather than angry. Politically slightly right of centre, they are confused by what British identity constitutes today - they are David Cameron's dream.

What do they want from brands? 'A brand that is local'. Feeling disconnected from Britain at a macro-level, they hanker after 'old Britain' by buying British and purchasing local brands and produce.

The Pretty Contents

Who are they? Likely to have a young family and live in the North West or Yorkshire. They have probably worked their way up the career ladder after leaving school and getting a job.

How are they feeling? Content. They have a family and good friends, and concentrate on those, rather than the world. This is illustrated by low levels of anger with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

What do they want from brands? 'A brand that speaks to everyone'. Family and community are high on their agenda and this group is more likely to favour a brand with a wider appeal.

The Doing Nicelys

Who are they? Well-off, middle-aged males, found predominantly in Cheshire, London and the South East.

How are they feeling? Very positive. Their major concerns are 'middle-class' ones - the environment and the media rank relatively high on their list of anxieties.

What do they want from brands? 'A brand that is genuine'.

As well-travelled and affluent consumers, they are likely to be concerned by a product's provenance and authentic roots.

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