OPINION20 February 2014

Is Britain in a post-traumatic state?


How have the hardships of recession impacted on British consumers, and what are the implications for marketers? Acacia Avenue’s Caroline Whitehill Hayter shares her point of view.


You only have to read the headlines to see that the UK 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 four years, but the experience will forever be imprinted on our collective DNA.

What does this mean for marketers? 

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, five years on, those of us 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 that the recession is behind us. 

He cites data which shows that, three years after a trauma, people are likely to be subject to what he calls “anxiety responses”. In years four, five and six, the vulnerability is not as raw, but still it lives on, often raising its head during the course of everyday activity, where it isn’t always recognised and traced back to its source.

Thompson 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 behaviour change – and an anxiety towards challenging the status quo. Of course, behavioural economics tells us that we human beings are inherently risk averse. So, add this heightened sensitivity on top of all of 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 behaviour change are so dominant in the discourse. 

As Thompson says: “Trust is slow to return because one can still remember the pain of disappointment, at being let down in an absolutely massive way.”

What does this mean for us today?

We have seen some seismic shifts in behaviour as a result of the recession, as well as others that are more subtle.

Shopping – offers, deals, vouchers and codes have gone from being a niche activity to one with mainstream appeal. It is considered foolish today to not use online shopping sites to buy more wisely.

Curated choice – as with every trend, there is a counter-trend. And so we are seeing a backlash against comparison sites. There are several ad campaigns at the moment, decrying them for being overly 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 in 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 they are not a bank, and therefore conduct themselves 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 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, they also demonstrate real brand value in a very commoditised world.

Self-reliance – whereas consumers might have previously identified themselves more closely with brands, that sort of affinity is much less likely now. In the area of fashion, for instance, people 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.

Want to hear more?

James Thompson will be discussing this topic at the MRS Annual Conference on 18 March, alongside Valerie Sinason, child psychotherapist from the Clinic of Dissociative Studies, who will help us unpick the thorny issues of vulnerability and trust.

Caroline Whitehill Hayter is a co-founder of Acacia Avenue

1 Comment

11 years ago

Great topic - would love to have read more about the psychological aspects, which sound fascinating, and less about the potential implications which to seem relatively hum-drum. Maybe by sharing more of the underlying research insights, readers might be able to make their own tangential, potentially inspired conclusions.

Like Report