Sparks of hope amid uncertainty
Much of the world feels unstable at the moment, but in the UK, the sense of living in uncertain times and of walking towards the unknown can seem all-pervasive.
The country voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the European Union, the extremely close result exposing deep divisions in British society and setting in train a long process of negotiations over what kind of “Brexit” is most desirable and what might actually be achievable. The EU accounts for 44 percent of the UK’s exports, so a successful relationship between the two is seen as essential by all parties.
An early election called in 2017 by Prime Minister Theresa May was intended to shore up support for her approach to talks with the EU, but ended in a hung parliament, a strong showing for the opposition Labour Party, and yet more uncertainty.
There are ongoing rumblings that before long, there will be a leadership challenge within the ruling Conservative Party. It’s no wonder that TV interviewee “Brenda from Bristol” became a national phenomenon when she echoed the groans of a nation with her one-liner on elections: “Not another one!”
The national consumer confidence index dipped after the election to a level only slightly higher than its post-referendum low, the Centre for Economic and Business Research announced in June. The housing market, not just a bellwether of the broader economy but also a talking point around the nation’s dining tables, has been similarly sluggish.
Doubt is not just affecting the public’s mood, a mood already dampened by fluctuating prices for essential goods, below-inflation wage rises, and several years of budget cutbacks across public spending in a government programme to bring down the budget deficit.
In July, the International Monetary Fund lowered its growth forecast for the UK from 2 percent to 1.7 percent, against forecast global growth of 3.5 percent driven largely by China, Japan and the EU.
The country has also been shaken by a series of fatal terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, which have led to both fear and suspicion, but also have had a unifying effect as people from diverse backgrounds show their resolve not to be divided or cowed.
And now, for some good news
Despite all of this, employment is at record highs, with official figures showing a gradual decline in the number of people out of work to put the unemployment rate at 4.5 percent, its lowest level since 1975.
The FTSE 100 index of leading shares is, at the time of writing, at an all-time high, and almost 10 percent ahead of its pre-crash high level of mid-2007.
And what’s encouraging for future growth is how the country is regarded when it comes to cutting-edge technology and as a centre for investment.
The latest data from the Department for International Trade show that the UK has attracted more than 2,200 new inward investment projects in 2016-17, a 2.3 percent increase on the previous 12 months. The US was the largest investor, while funding from China (including Hong Kong) and then France and India followed. In July, London’s landmark “Walkie Talkie” skyscraper sold for £1.3 billion to Hong Kong Chinese investors, breaking the record for a single building in the UK and perhaps defying forecasts of a weaker post-Brexit commercial property market.
On the World Economic Forum’s networked readiness index, which assesses the factors, policies and institutions that enable a country to leverage information and communication technologies (ICT) for increased competitiveness and wellbeing,
the UK is ranked 8th out of 139 countries. Singapore is top, followed by Finland, Sweden, Norway and the United States.
And on the European Commission-supported European Digital City Index, which describes how well different cities support digital entrepreneurs, London takes first place in all of Europe. Cambridge is 12th, Bristol 13th, Oxford and Manchester in 15th and 16th places, Edinburgh 19th, Birmingham 23rd, Glasgow 36th, and Cardiff 40th.
The UK is now the world’s third largest global hub for innovation and development in the biosciences sector, and several of Europe’s leading private banks – including UBS, Credit Suisse and Société Générale – in July said they planned to expand their activities in the UK, with extra staff and new offices, not just in London but around the country.
London’s highly developed financial sector and venture capital industry has helped fuel crowdfunding start-ups, and there is a growing creative technology cluster around the “Silicon Roundabout” area of east London, which has become the third-largest tech start-up hub after only San Francisco and New York City.
Cambridge is best known for its university but has recently been home to an explosion of tech and life-sciences start-ups, often linked to advances at the university. Microsoft has a research lab in Cambridge, and Apple is developing new versions of Siri from an office there.
The northern city of Manchester, meanwhile, a key textiles and milling centre at the time of the industrial revolution, is at the heart of an Internet of Things project backed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and hosts start-up events and business accelerators such as Entrepreneurial Spark, which has helped more than 150 entrepreneurs in the area.
The UK remains a safe place by world standards, and despite their political differences, citizens of all stripes are united in their adoration of the National Health Service – and in their complaints about British weather. If you missed Summer 2017 in the time it took to read this page, we apologise.
There are opportunities, as consumers adjust to the changing reality in which they live, for brands to make meaningful connections. Brands can be not just present but also relevant, enriching people’s lives, even in small ways.
For brands that fail to get the balance right between volume and meaning, there is a very real danger of creating a consumer backlash. The latest Kantar TNS Connected Life study shows that Brits feel harassed by much of the online advertising they encounter, and they are blocking ads in huge numbers – the biggest rates we’ve seen in Europe.
Successful British brands are telling stories that resonate with people’s lives. Consumers are sophisticated and selective; they expect an increasingly complex relationship with the brands they make part of their lives.
Keeping calm and carrying on
The wartime motto of positivity “Keep calm and carry on” has been widely used across the UK since the 2008-2009 downturn, and variations of it, both witty and otherwise, now feature on everything from bumper stickers to tea towels. The mantra may be somewhat tired, but the sentiment it reflects is real, and retains its relevance for the post-Brexit-vote era. The dairy drink Actimel has adopted the idea of the need to show resilience in these times of great change. In its “Stay Strong” campaign, it looks at a range of people – a teacher, a farmer and a roadworker – and shows how their positive resilience helps them laugh in the face of the daily challenges they encounter.