Is Britain in a post-traumatic state?

Britain in a post-traumatic state

You only have to read the headlines to see that the British public is doing its level best to put the recession behind it. But we’re dogged with incidents and issues that remind us that we may not yet be in a position to move on.

As many psychologists will tell you, once someone has been through a big trauma, the healing process takes time. We may think we can walk away from the woes of the past six years, but the experience will forever be imprinted into our collective DNA.

So, what does this mean for marketers? Six years on from the spectacular fall of Lehman Brothers, what will be washed away with the tides of the recession and what will remain washed up on the beach, affecting our lives at a deeper level as we move forward?

Dr James Thompson is a senior lecturer in psychology at UCL, working with victims of trauma. An interview with him reveals insight into what we might really be up against.

Thompson asserts that six years on, those who ‘dare to believe it’s over’ are clinging on with as much optimism as they can muster, but this is sometimes thinly veiled, and most are simply not yet ready to believe the economic crisis is behind us. Thompson cites data showing that three years after a trauma, one is likely to be subject to what he calls ‘anxiety responses’, and that in the fourth, fifth and sixth years, the vulnerability is not as raw but still lives on, often raising its head during the course of everyday activity, where it isn’t always recognised and traced back to its source.

He says: 'The interesting thing about those vulnerabilities is that many people no longer associate them with the trauma, though you can show the relationship with the trauma. They semi-forget things and what one gets is a lot of anger response – think of the floods at the moment and the backlash against ‘The bastards in government’.'

How this manifests itself is in a heightened sensitivity to risk of any kind, including any form of behavioural change, and anxiety about challenging the status quo. Of course, we know a lot of this too, from the world of behavioural economics, which explains that as human beings we are inherently risk-averse. So add this heightened sensitivity to all the usual resistances and a marketer’s job becomes an uphill battle. Perhaps this is part of the reason why in 2014, the issues of trust and behavioural change are so dominant in the discourse. As Thompson says: 'Trust is slow to return because one can still remember the pain and disappointment of being let down in an absolutely massive way.'

So what does this mean for us today?

We have seen some seismic shifts in terms of behaviour as a result of the recession, and others that are more subtle, but underpin the choices and decisions people make. Here are some examples.

  • Shopping: The very nature of this has changed. Shopping on offer, using deals, vouchers and codes has gone from being a niche activity to one with mainstream appeal. It is considered foolish today not to use online shopping sites to buy more wisely.
  • Curated choice: Just as with every trend, there is a counter-trend, alongside this online shopping behaviour is a backlash against comparison sites. There are several ad campaigns at the moment decrying them for being too complex and opaque. People are looking for simplicity and guidance, not more responsibility for wading through the morass of options they have at their disposal before making a decision. The notion of curated choice and an edited number of ‘go to’ sites is becoming increasingly appealing. •
  • The importance of the current account: Banks are responding to the lack of trust people have for them by offering bells and whistles on the current account. They are giving back to their customers in a bid to re-establish trust. NatWest’s Rewards and Santander’s 123 account are examples of this. Of course, there is always a role for acquisition with such offers but, for existing customers, these offers finally allow them to start to feel good about their accounts.
  • The re-emergence of the building society: Nationwide’s current campaign is founded on the fact that it is not a bank and therefore, it claims, conducts itself fairly and ethically.
  • Exercising bargaining power: We often hear people talking about haggling in shops these days, and many of them come out of it the winner. While this isn’t a mainstream activity, it’s interesting to see the supermarkets openly offering price matches and vouchers if their products are sold more cheaply elsewhere. The way people attribute value for money to brands is changing and these gestures by the big supermarkets not only work to establish confidence and trust, but also demonstrate real brand value in a very commoditised world.
  • Self-reliance: Whereas consumers would once have identified themselves more closely with brands (‘I’m an M&S person’), that sort of affinity is much less likely to be granted now. In the area of fashion, for example, shoppers will pick and choose from across all available brands and sources, mixing up prices and brands according to a sense of style that is not borrowed from any one particular brand. No doubt we will see more reverberations in the next 18 months as the tides continue to shift and turn and life adjusts to its next version of normal.

This article was taken from the June 2014 issue of Market Leader. Browse the archive here.