Nostalgia and the brand consequences of Blitz spirit

The apparent popularity of this retro-typographical gem – Keep Calm and Carry On – offers at least two useful insights about the mood of the UK population at the moment that are relevant to PR professionals:

Familiarity breeds content: There appears to be a general hankering for a future that mirrors the in-it-together-leave-your-backdoor-open-all-day aura that surrounds late/post-war Britain (think ‘Skegness is so bracing’ or destination creative like ‘Scarborough’ posters).

Blitz behaviour: The relationship between the individual and state – and ‘trusted organisations’ – is changing as I type. People are seemingly increasingly happy for other people to take care of them, and they’re even happier to know that someone else has the wherewithal to do it. It’s a mood which, arguably, mirrors the spirit of The Blitz and entitles organisations with the right to do so to adopt a paternal tone a la ‘If you have to take a long train journey…’. The consequence is a greater sense of national collective purpose rather than individualistic pursuit, and this is already proving significant in PR terms.

Familiarity breeds content

The need for the familiar and reassuring is evident in the revival of fashion and advertising icons – the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny, the Virgin 25th anniversary ad where you clock the 80s brand names, the superbly evocative Jack Daniels ad copy and creative at tube stations at the moment, the photographic direction of Aviva’s star-studded rebranding ad campaign. On the high street, it’s the crossover between 40s/50s inspired fashion and continuing 80s new romantic revival. Now I don’t claim to be an expert but Trendhunter’s piece on Jackie Kennedy as well as this post from Drapers Online illustrate the point.

Even the Obama campaign used a typeface that was created by Eric Gill in London in the 1930s and whose imagery offers a respectful nod towards folksy American painter Norman Rockwell.

Basically, these are culturally familiar cues from two distinct eras for directors in creative agencies and fashion houses who are likely to have grown up in the 1980s, and whose parents reached the age of majority in the 1940s/50s.

In other words creatives are pandering to bygone and ‘better times’ cultural cues that they believe encourage people to think that there is calm and continuity somewhere out there, and everything’s going to be OK. If brands can strike that chord with consumers, or encourage people to dress like everything’s OK, everything will feel OK.

Blitz behaviour

Pretty much every Obama speech I care to listen to or read, appeals to a spirit of collective responsibility in times of great anxiety – his victory speech last November is a case in point. Take a look at two passages of the victory speech at, particularly the passages titled ‘Victory for the people’ and ‘One nation, one people’. He referred to it again on Tuesday when he announced his budget plan. Just take a look at the ‘pull’ quote in the BBC piece on the budget plan.

What’s different about the tone here – in contrast to ‘Keep calm and carry on’ – is that, whilst the sentiment is the same, Obama’s not ‘telling’ people to participate he’s inviting participation. He’s going to have to draw on the goodwill generated by popular participation to push the budget through Congress as well. This is probably why Obama’s working the circuit at the moment on shows like Jay Leno’s and by using formats like online town hall meetings.

Obama’s attempting to seek to engage the public while Washington insiders continue to operate along habitually traditional methods: Obama’s for the people, ‘special interests’ aren’t.

In PR terms, evidence and acknowledgement of broader social responsibility ought to be dead centre of communications strategy at the moment, and for some time in the future. I tend to subscribe to the view that we’re going through an epochal transition from Reagonomics to social and economic citizenry, and brands that don’t recognise that it’s not about ‘you’ but about ‘us’ are going to appear distinctly ‘disconnected’.

To illustrate the point, I’d suggest that the outrage over Fred Goodwin and his pension is less about the money than his apparent lack of willingness to participate; Fred is not taking his fair share of the pain and anxiety of the ‘rest of us’. There’s a ‘distance’ between Fred and latent sentiment among the Great British Public.

If Fred forfeited his pension rights, he’d do the entire industry a PR favour. But Fred – a bloke who, until now, has been applauded and rewarded for single-minded individualism – continues to behave as an individual in the face of the collective spirit of the Blitz (even though every leading politician who’s willing to win a headline has invited Fred to hand back even some of the money). So Fred’s not ‘digging for victory’ like the rest of us; he’s not taking part. Fred’s demonised himself.

What’s does this mean to for brands?

This collective spirit has emerged at precisely the same point in time as the arrival of a hugely significant dynamic if you manage a brand or its communications function – digital social media. The availability and accessibility of these technologies, particularly mobile technology, is likely to revolutionise brand management – especially in service industries.

The fact is that social media was a trend anyway, but the social dynamics of the recession, the emergence of a ‘one nation’ President of the US and the emerging ‘spirit of the blitz’ appears to be giving it additional traction. The significance to marketing communications is apparent. Some influential thinkers have begun to claim that the vast investment in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, and even the sacred cow of ‘segmentation’, are – to be honest – a load of money-spinning IT-inspired rationalist claptrap.

As a rule, I can’t stand ‘management’ books but this kind of heresy is more sociological than anything else so it’s a) interesting and b) is covered in books like Herd by Mark Earls and Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein. Aside from having one word titles, both allude to an emerging spirit of mass collectivism and changeable mass behaviour and – importantly for PR people – the influence of ‘other people’ or single simple steps on the behaviour of groups of individuals that lead to changeability.

The upshot is that brands that fail to realise the potential of these technologies, or underestimate the potential power of them, risk a withering reputation.

So for brand managers in service industries: Your communications strategy must enable customers to take part in your brand in order to create a ‘reservoir of goodwill’ to draw upon when ‘other people’ put your reputation in jeopardy. (Nucleus’s IFA Board and claims of IFA ownership, for example, represents a ‘goodwill’ strategy.)

And for PR agencies: You’re ideally placed to advise clients on the appropriate communications strategy to adapt to shifting and changing mass behaviour because, no matter what an ad creative ‘tells’ you, your PR proves it. (Ad creative ‘sells’, the consequence of PR is that people ‘buy in’)

For the future: For traditional media: Right now, sites like Twitter and Facebook are caricatured by traditional media channels, partly because they don’t really recognise their potential but, mostly, because media owners know that they represent a major strategic threat to their businesses. Even the Guardian was at it yesterday, despite the fact the Guardian, like the BBC, no longer regards itself as a ‘newspaper’ but a content and platform provider – see Guardian ‘Open Platform’. It’s the principle of the underlying technology and the speed with which people are adopting it that is the significant behaviour, not the opinion of the media. People are voting with their feet (or fingertips).

For ad agencies: The message is becoming more significant than the media employed to promote the message because – if service brands can get people to participate and achieve sufficient ‘buy in’ then the need to ‘sell’, and so advertise in its traditional sense, diminishes.

For operational marketers: Technology like Twitter equals customer self service and free market insight – known as ‘crowd sourcing’ – because a) customers can help one another use your product or service; b) it helps you understand what elements of your service you need to improve and so you can reduce traditional customer support costs, and c) It serves to foster a perception of improving and responsive quality of customer service. (Online banks are a first generation example of customer self-service, whilst sites like Trip Advisor are examples of second generation crowd-sourced service brands).

A sobering lesson for traditional media and media relations

Why this is significant is that the traditional media model – which has been the stock and trade of both marketers and media relations types until now – is being turned inside out by the capacity of new media channels to influence agendas via active participation rather than passive reading or viewing.

So it challenges media relations advisers and brand marketers alike because ‘other people’ are potentially more significant to your reputation or brand than media that was traditionally the route to manage these things. The trouble is that unlike the past, where sources of issues are generally predictable (newspapers, publishers websites, broadcasters, talking heads), today you increasingly don’t know who the ‘other people’ are, where they are and when they’ll pop up.

To employ a distasteful analogy, it’s a latter-day cultural Al Qaida.

Dependence on traditional media to – firstly – act as the conduit of your message and, secondly, influence the legitimacy of it, is under threat from apparently invisible user-generated and distributive new media networks that exist because people participate – Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, Myspace, Tripadvisor, getsatisfaction, lastfm etc.

For example, when the US press called the New Hampshire Democratic primaries for Clinton, they called it early and wrong because they relied on predictable sources and methods to judge its traditional indicators like polls, canvass data and ‘intuitive’ commentators. They missed the non-traditional media employed by Obama to galvanise and influence voter behaviour. They missed the point that simply through his use of a mosaic of new media, Obama signalled two things to potential voters – not just what he said but how he chose to engage voters in the message.

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