Surviving the nasty decade

Its official. The nice decade is behind us. So said Bank of England governor Mervyn King last week as he sketched out a picture of the new era of austerity facing the UK. Racing inflation, stagnating growth, unemployment and declining house values will stalk the UK for years to come, he warned. So thats it for what he calls nice, or non-inflationary consistent expansion to give it its full moniker.

It’s official. The “nice decade” is behind us. So said Bank of England governor Mervyn King last week as he sketched out a picture of the new era of austerity facing the UK. Racing inflation, stagnating growth, unemployment and declining house values will stalk the UK for years to come, he warned. So that’s it for what he calls “nice”, or “non-inflationary consistent expansion” to give it its full moniker.

The “nice decade” has developed its own style of optimistic, faux-naive communications, and some wonder if the touchy-feely marketing of the new millennium will continue through stormier economic waters. Countless ads have featured daisies sprouting on sunlit meadows like something out of Teletubbies – look at Morrisons’ new campaign trumpeting its environmental credentials and the Waitrose picnic ads.

BP’s Beyond Petroleum campaign and the starburst logo modelled on a sunflower typifies “nice decade” ethical positioning, although many suspect the oil giant is quietly dropping the slogan under new chief executive Tony Hayward. This comes after BP’s “nice decade” under previous boss Lord Browne turned decidedly nasty with a pollution crisis and a refinery explosion.

Marketers have shouted long and loud about ethics, environmental care and authenticity during the decade. But now that we are moving into not-so-nice times, will the curtains be drawn on this optimistic vision?

“When we started the zero decade, everyone contrasted it with the vulgar hedonism and thrusting values of the Nineties. There was this new, optimistic, millennial kind of feeling,” says Mark Lund, chief executive of ad agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren. He believes that in tougher times, people may seek greater escapism from their culture to forget about crushing depression.

Some predict that the healthy, ethical trends of the past ten years could be challenged in the period of austerity. The healthy eating movement could give way to a renewed appetite for cheap snacks which alleviate the stresses of hardship.

Mark Wickens, of brand consultancy Brandhouse, says: “Healthy living is something which people tend to renege on the deal they have made with themselves when times get tough.” He points to the old adage that the four safest stocks in a recession are tobacco, alcohol, adult entertainment and armaments, and predicts that purveyors of vice may thrive.

Even so, Wickens believes that brands that have forged the strongest bonds with consumers during the good times will be best placed to thrive when the going gets tough. Upbeat messages will become more relevant as hard-up consumers look to brands for reassurance, say some observers.

Trends watcher Marian Salzman, of Porter Novelli in New York, believes that people are becoming exhausted by the despair of economic hardships. “It will be an awful decade but ‘nice’ will be the cost of entry into the conversation with consumers,” she says. “Corporate social responsibility will be the only thing employers and businesses can give us at a time when there is nothing to hang on to.”

Meanwhile, Vicky Bullen, chief executive of design agency Coley Porter Bell, says: “Brands can play a role in alleviating consumers’ anxiety by providing little uplifts in people’s lives, not promising the earth but making them feel a little better.” She points to the Cadbury’s Gorilla ad as an example of a brand providing a small boost to the spirits and argues that offering small doses of optimism and finding little ways to improve people’s lives will be more important than ever in the tougher economic environment.

The rush into green and ethical marketing that has typified the nice decade could come under threat. As budgets are cut, surely corporate social responsibility will be an area deemed “non-essential”? But it will be hard to cut back on doing good given the claims many companies have made about their ethical conversion.

Gwyneth Holland, head of trends at the Future Laboratory, believes brands’ ethical focus will continue. “I don’t think brands can afford to cut ethical spending. It has been such an enormous issue and consumers are not willing to give up on ethical standards they have developed over the last few years,” she says. But she predicts a new age of thrift among the ethically aware. People will switch from cheap stylish fashions that fall apart after a few weeks and opt for longer-lasting garments, she predicts. Rather than giving up pricey organic food altogether, they will look to cut out waste. “They’ll revive granny’s recipes – such as using the stock and giblets from chickens – to get more economy out of high quality meat,” she says.

Against this, research by the Future Foundation suggests that the ethical premium will come under pressure. Account director Barry Clark says: “Consumers are more likely to pay a premium for environmentally friendly and ethically sourced products when they feel their financial situation is good. Should they become less confident, their concerns about the wider world will become secondary to their own needs.”

Perhaps the biggest visible change in communications will come in the way banks are marketed. People will want them to behave more like the dull but respectable financiers of tradition following the Northern Rock collapse. Out go the singing, dancing comedians. Halifax will probably axe its staff-as-stars campaign featuring employee Howard Brown as it goes cap in hand to the City asking for more cash. People will seek old-fashioned conservatism from their financial service providers. Posters outside Barclays Bank branches proclaiming “nice people work here” miss the point. They may be nice, but can they be trusted with my money?

But it is easy to get carried away with the disruption to marketing that the not-so-nice decade will bring, says Pearlfisher creative partner Jonathan Ford. He says UK consumers have become savvy at finding bargains and have a portfolio of favoured brands to choose from. If money gets tight, they will work out the best formula for balancing those brands but will not cut out any.

And of course, unlike any previous economic downturn, there is a widely accessed internet to help guide consumers to the best bargains.
Marketers will be watching the future closely as they attempt to second-guess what’s going on in the minds of the public. It will be imperative to take into account consumers’ economic woes as the not-so-nice decade dawns.

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