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As the UK Lurches from Crisis to Crisis, How Should Brands Respond?



With the fuel tanks, supermarket shelves and positivity reserves of Britain seemingly all empty, some top UK strategists weigh in on how brands might appropriately consider the mood of the nation

As the UK Lurches from Crisis to Crisis, How Should Brands Respond?

Headlines in the UK in recent weeks have been straight out of the 1970s. Queues and fights at petrol stations, a shortage of HGV drivers, a broader energy crisis – and for that extra 1974 vibe, there’s the spectre of a possibility of streets piled with uncollected rubbish as bin lorry drivers leave to fill the shortage in the haulage sector.  Supermarket shelves are noticeably empty in places, while on the production and supply side a Brexit-induced labour shortage means that there are backlogs of unslaughtered pigs and unpicked veggies, fruits and flowers. National bakery chain Greggs has had to reassure the country that ‘Britain will not run out of sausage rolls’. 

It’s having an impact on people’s behaviour – thanks to an earlier-than-usual surge in Christmas shopping-related search terms, retailer Very launched its festive campaign on October 1st, around a month earlier than usual. It may be a response to last year’s damp squib of a Christmas, when the government enacted a last-minute lockdown, but it could be worry around shortages. On the other hand, surging winter fuel prices and the removal of the £20-a-week universal credit bonus mean that millions will find themselves with less disposable income.

In these gloomy times, we asked some of the UK’s cleverest strategy brains for some reflections on what advertisers and the British people should be considering as the country appears to be limping towards a winter of discontent.

Jessica Lovell, chief strategy officer and founder at Wonderhood Studios

I woke up the other morning to the news on the radio. Petrol and gas shortages, energy price hikes, empty supermarket shelves, 10 years to get the cancer waiting lists down… Covid aside, it was one of the bleakest news bulletins I have heard in a while.
However, despite the gloom of the news, YouGov’s mood of the nation survey shows that in fact, happiness is the emotion most felt by the nation. It also shows we are significantly more optimistic than last year (up a huge 31%). 
This is perhaps unsurprising. We are emerging from a fundamental threat, and looking to the future.
Despite the challenges of the bumpy road ahead, this is also an historic moment. A moment for rebuilding and thinking about what comes next. A moment for taking on board the lessons in all that we experienced – the shock, the togetherness, looking after each other, new ways of doing things, the changes forced upon us that point to a different, and perhaps better way of doing things.
Brands and advertisers that embrace the role of looking forward with positivity, inspire and allow people to feel optimistic about the future, or even just bring a big dose of joy and hope, might just be more in tune with the mood of the nation than the gloomy news headlines, of a drizzly Tuesday morning.

Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer at Wunderman Thompson UK

What an utter shit-show we’re in. But did anyone honestly expect it to be any different? I hope all those Leavers and Red Wall turncoats are enjoying their very British queues. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ never felt so apt.
So what can business or brands do to help, as we lurch from health crises to overcooked oven-ready plan? Perhaps, simply, don’t ignore it. Maybe recognise it and embrace it.
I was always taught that ‘context’ really is king. The most important part of any message or any action is the situation in which it’s experienced. How remarkable then, as we flick through the newspaper ads, fast-forward through the sponsorship idents or gaze longingly at soft knits on social media, that no brands seem to be referencing the current situation? In times of war, crises, or uncertainty, shouldn’t brands be telling us that they are there for us, that we can rely on them, that come what may, they’ve got our backs? Where’s the supermarket messaging telling us they are fully stocked? Where’s the reassuring petrol companies telling us what their plan of action is? What about the food deliverers telling us to stay put at home? Maybe even the electric car brand asking if range anxiety is as big an issue for combustion engines?
These examples might seem trite, but the point is, there really is business opportunity in every crisis. I’m just surprised brands are being so blinkered at the moment. They risk showing how out of touch they really are.

Hannah Hayes-Westall, strategy director at MullenLowe London

People act out of fear. Fear wins elections, referendums and - whisper it - market share. Fear of missing out,  fear of falling behind,  fear of anticipated regret, these are all the fears that we as advertisers usually work with, and the fears we know best how to control. But when the fear of hunger, of the cold, of illness, of loss, of violence or simply of otherness is so present in our lives, we must look to our methods to ensure we do not make a difficult situation worse. For me, art is as ever a source of succour and inspiration.

Jenny Holzer’s 1993 work ‘42nd street art project’ now known as Marquees, saw the artist take over abandoned 42nd Street movie theatre hoardings with aphoristic texts, one of which read “IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER”. Arriving during a time of great upheaval, in the midst of the crack epidemic and the aftermath of the World Trade Centre bombing, it was a powerful reminder that hate can destroy the hater and fear destroy the fearful. It is unsurprising that it is amongst the most shared of her works in today’s memeified world, because it speaks to a need for comfort, hope and seeing another way. It’s very popularity is testament to the strength of the human urge to create calmness and joy from chaos and dysfunction. 

This piece of Holzer’s work reminds me that we have powerful tools at our disposal, and suggests to me an imperative to find a way to connect our clients with their audiences in a way that comforts and inspires through the unity of our shared desire for peacefulness. In these difficult times that means effective approaches are those that champion the tenderness and humanity within ourselves and our work; that go beyond not making things worse and, through acts of tenderness, make things better.

Kev Chesters, co-owner and strategy partner at Harbour Collective 

Brands don't operate in a vacuum. Brands (and those who manage or communicate about them) are part of everyday life. So, one is always communicating in context. 

Right now, things are a bit glum. And this is the context of the country and our audiences. 

But this doesn't mean that all brands should be talking about the current mood of the nation. All advertising is about generating or joining a conversation. Sometimes like with Dove back in the day it was generating one. But clearly the existing 'Brexit' narrative and the ongoing crises from food to fuel to fishing is not a conversation that needs to be created/manufactured. Brands just need to think long and hard about whether to join it. Most brands shouldn't. Most have no credibility or right to do so. It’d just be weird. 

Most should just get on with doing what they do to the people they do it to. On a personal note, I do think the world needs more cheer. And I think too many advertisers forget this. I've moderated a billion focus groups and whenever you ask consumers what kind of ads they like they always say "funny ones". Maybe we need a few more. Bring back the funny. Less purpose, more LOLs. 

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LBB Editorial, Tue, 05 Oct 2021 12:45:43 GMT