Austerity is changing our values and priorities

Tightened household budgets has prompted a rethink among consumers, and altered the way they react to retailers and brands, as Jane Simms discovers

The new advertising campaign for US whiskey brand Jack Daniel’s features a Christmas tree made of barrels and the strapline: “It’s not what’s under the Christmas tree that matters; it’s who’s around it.” On one level it’s just nice, feel-good Christmas advertising that promises a welcome respite from the unremitting austerity that we’ve all become accustomed to. But consumer insight specialists believe that, at a deeper level, it also taps into a shift in consumers’ attitudes.

“There’s lots of evidence to suggest that the prolonged recession caused the general public to switch its focus from wealth to emotional wellbeing,” says Tracey Follows, chief strategy officer and executive partner at advertising agency JWT London.

She cites a recent survey by JWT that asked people how they would spend a National Lottery jackpot. Around 46 per cent said they would buy property, but other than that very few plumped for material goods or the traditional trappings of wealth. Just 16 per cent said they would buy a new car, 6 per cent said they would buy the latest technology or gadgets and 6 per cent said they would spend their win on luxury clothes or accessories.

By contrast, 63 per cent said they would help their relatives and friends financially, and 20 per cent would set up trust funds for the next generation. Around 23 per cent said they would donate to charity and 39 per cent said they would invest in personal experiences for self-development or self-fulfilment.

“People seem to rank personal wellbeing and intangible experiences higher than material possessions and wealth,” says Ms Follows. “Health, time with family and control over their lives were all priorities for over 80 per cent of people surveyed, with financial security coming fourth.”

Other surveys reinforce these findings. Research from GB TGI earlier this year found that 57 per cent of people in the UK agree with the statement, “How I spend my time is more important than the money I make”, and 44 per cent of respondents to a recent GfK Roper survey agreed that “Experiences are more important than possessions”.

Ms Follows concludes: “You could argue, then, that brands that help consumers accumulate these enriching experiences, boosting social and cultural capital, will prosper.”

John Lewis’s tear-jerking Christmas advertisement in 2011, The Long Wait, was a pioneer of the new wave of more “emotive” advertising. Featuring a little boy, whose excitement about Christmas centred on the present he was going to give his parents, it was a refreshing antidote to the naked commerciality that has come to characterise modern Christmases.

And earlier this year Google’s Dear Sophie ad, which oozed “family”, “love” and “security”, helped position what to many is a faceless corporation – despite its ubiquity – as a sort of friend that shares the same values as the viewer.

There’s lots of evidence to suggest that the prolonged recession caused the general public to switch its focus from wealth to emotional wellbeing

But others believe the picture is more complex than a straightforward shift in focus from wealth to wellbeing. “The signals point in different directions,” says Paul Flatters, chief executive of Trajectory, a consumer insight and futures consultancy.

Trajectory’s research indicates that recession-hit consumers are more price-sensitive and less loyal than they used to be, but favour brands where “value” and “values” go hand in hand. He cites the supermarket sector as an example.

“During the recession the supermarkets that have done best are the discounters, such as Aldi and Lidl at one end of the price spectrum, and Waitrose at the other. But what’s interesting is that each has had to complement its respective focus. For example, Aldi brought in a celebrity chef, Phil Vickery, to reinforce its new focus on the provenance of its food, while Waitrose launched an ‘Essentials’ range to cater for its more price-conscious shoppers. So both are now covering both bases – value and values – but they have come from very different starting points.”

What’s more, continues Mr Flatters, while people do still care about “others”, the altruism of the boom years, when “saving the planet” was a primary concern, has been replaced by a sense that “charity begins at home” – family, friends and the local, rather than global, community. It’s a shift that the ads from John Lewis, Google and Jack Daniel’s tap into very well, but where does it leave brands’ much-vaunted social responsibility strategies?

“It depends where they focus,” says Mr Flatters. “Marks & Spencer launched its high-profile sustainability campaign, Plan A, just before recession bit. Abandoning it would have caused huge loss of face, so they are trying to make it relevant in the current climate. They have launched the concept of ‘shwopping’ [donating an old piece of clothing every time you buy a new one] for example, which fits the new ‘thrift’ message.”

Professor Paddy Barwise at London Business School believes brands that tap into these new trends may be able to sustain sales among consumers whose loyalty is being tested by the recession.

“Family and friends and the need for affiliation may become more salient when times are tough, and that suggests more emotive advertising may have more resonance now than in the past,” he says.

But Nick Jefferson, managing director of creative agency Gyro London, warns against jumping on the emotional bandwagon. John Lewis’s The Long Wait ad worked because it was entirely consistent with the retailer’s brand values, he points out. John Lewis has a strong reputation based on the quality of its products, its “never knowingly undersold” price promise, its partnership structure and so on, so it can get away with layering the emotion and feel-good factor on top. But this luxury is not available to every brand.

“Thirty years ago advertisers might have got away with pretending to be something they’re not, but the digital revolution means there’s nowhere to hide any more, and brands that are not authentic will soon be found out,” says Mr Jefferson.

And, depending on the nature of the brand, product-based advertising may be more appropriate and more effective, he says.

Under its late chief executive Steve Jobs, for example, Apple’s advertising focused almost exclusively on product features and how they helped people live their lives. “The current brand-focused advertising somehow feels less compelling than the ads that focused on Apple’s unique selling proposition,” says Mr Jefferson.

Time will tell how effective the new campaign is in winning and sustaining loyalty, but whatever the economic climate, people’s propensity to buy a brand depends almost entirely on trust, he says.

“Product, value, brand and emotion are all drivers of trust, and in a downturn brands have to work harder than ever at all of them,” Mr Jefferson concludes.