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How can we learn more from our most traditional institutions than we can from technology

So, it’s twenty years since the first edition of Market Leader arrived in all our in trays. A lot has changed, much of which will be top of mind for marketers.  Back in 1998, fewer than a quarter of us used the internet: now, at 93%, its use is almost universal.  Back then we were an amazing ten years away from the first i-phone launch – now 85% of adults use a smart phone. Social media didn’t exist – today 8 out of 10 internet users have a social media profile. 40 million people use catch up technology to watch TV – a third do this every week and more than half of us do this every month.

Against this backdrop of rapid technological change, how does Britain’s mood compare now with then? Britain Thinks has just published a study looking at the national mind-set anticipating the year ahead. It’s gloomy. 8 out of 10 people told us they felt anxious about what 2018 would bring. “Uncertain’, “pessimistic”, and “worried” were the words most often used. Division highlighted by the EU referendum campaign remains. People see little to look forward to, and even personal plans like happy family occasions anticipated in the coming year simply serve as reminders of squeezed finances. After initially being heralded as “Mrs Thatcher Mark 2’ voters’ sense of disappointment with Theresa May and her government is almost palpable.

How were we feeling twenty years ago? In 1998, just as now, we were eight months into a new government after an election with a somewhat surprising outcome. However, the Labour landslide was decisive in a way that the 2017 election was not, and seemed to speak to a more cohesive Britain. Arranging focus groups in the weeks following that election it proved almost impossible to recruit people who would admit to NOT having voted Labour. As one ex Tory voter told me at the time: “We’re all New Labour now”.

Yet, by spring the following year, disillusionment was already creeping in. True, the headline polling looked good for Labour with government satisfaction figures that Theresa May would die for today. (6% net satisfaction with the government and an astonishing 31% net satisfaction with Blair, contrasting with a current -29% net dissatisfaction with government and 16% net dissatisfaction with May’s own leadership) But the focus groups, so often early harbingers of doom, told a different story.

Ironically, the first rumblings of discontentment were triggered by something that had been intended to symbolise optimism: the Millenium Dome. As press reports that the project was running out of money became more frequent, voters grew increasingly vocal, seeing the Dome as a government vanity project. They joined up stories about squandered public money with their own impatience about lack of delivery on public services. With an often-limited grip on the macro economy and government finances (“it’s all mickey mouse money”) many voters assumed that the millions (770 of them to be precise) being spent on the Dome could have easily sorted out the ailing NHS or over-crowded classrooms that they had voted Labour to resolve.

Interestingly, when we look at the issues that we are preoccupied with today there are striking similarities. In 1998, our top five concerns were NHS, EU (albeit with a focus on the single currency), unemployment, education and crime. Now, the top two are the same, with EU top (this time Brexit of course) and NHS second, followed by education, immigration and housing – which is now at its highest level since the 1970’s. A new concern in 2018’s top ten is ‘ageing population/social care’, while crime has slipped down the list and inflation and ‘minimum wage/ fair wages’ no longer feature.

So some things have changed dramatically: in 1998 just 14% wanted to leave the EU, while 17% wanted not only to stay but to increase EU powers; some social attitudes have transformed, too.  At 66%  three times as many of us support same sex marriage as did in 1998. Many of our major institutions are trusted less now than they were in 1998: the press, trade unions, politicians, banks –  indeed many businesses would look back nostalgically on trust ratings from that era’.

But there is one institution that is holding up pretty well. Twice as many people now believe that the Royal Family is doing a good job as did 20 years ago, and the number who believe that it should be abolished has dwindled to fewer than 5%. Of course, back in 1998 the nation was still reeling from the death of Princess Diana, but the resilience of the brand and the extent of its recovery is startling. When we asked people in our focus groups at the start of this year what makes them feel optimistic about Britain in 2018, young or old, male or female, all agreed on the one thing that they were most looking forward to: Harry and Meghan’s wedding in May. It seems we could all learn a lesson from that most traditional and least technological of brands.

Deborah Mattinson is founder and director of BrainThinks
[email protected]

This piece was taken from The Marketing Society print title Market Leader.

Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 22 Feb 2018
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