What the UK's ‘calm in the face of change’ attitude means for marketing


These days, you can hardly move for all the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ merchandise available. Tea-towels, mugs, aprons, t-shirts... it’s getting ridiculous. Yet it’s an instantly recognisable sample of Britishness, a cultural marker that first came to prominence in the war and has once more come into its own during the recession. We’re famous as a culture for our stiff upper lip, our stoicism in the face of adversity.

So why is this? It’s due in part to a principle called Uncertainty Avoidance, which essentially indicates how comfortable your culture is with not knowing what will happen in the future, and their response to this.

Countries with a high UAI (Uncertainty Avoidance Index) dislike ambiguity and change, and deal with this by sticking to rigid codes of conduct and belief systems. Unconventionality is perceived as dangerous, and these societies are often emotionally very expressive. Examples include Russia, Portugal and Japan – countries famous for having strict laws, strong religious belief systems, or intricate customs which dictate life and relationships.

But in the UK, unsurprisingly, we’ve got a very low UAI score. We don’t mind ambiguity - in fact, we welcome it. Low-UAI countries prize individuality and entrepreneurship, qualities valued highly in our society today; they also tend to be much more multicultural, which we’ve got down to a T. When it comes to expression, rather than the passionate outpourings that form the basis of every Portugese or Spanish stereotype, people in low UAI countries tend to be much more laid-back – it’s culturally appropriate to, well, keep calm and carry on.

So how can this insight influence how we target marketing to British people? There are some key points that can be taken onboard in order to get the most from your campaign:

Allow audiences to explore and discover

Low-UAI audiences don’t like being coddled or instructed too much, so ensure your marketing strategies give them a degree of freedom. For example, an online advert could be interactive; it could ask you to click a choice, or the image could change when your cursor hovers over it. Try integrating drop-down menus on your website, links to external content, and sitemaps.

Be informal

People in low-UAI countries respond best to mediums such as social media, which suit informal attitude and advanced technology of UK audiences. Rather than being an afterthought, social media should be closely integrated into your campaign planning. It will help get your message out there, but then also helps negotiate ongoing dialogue between you and your audiences; those in low-UAI countries will be impressed by swift responses and attention to connecting with them.

Don’t get overemotional

It’s not what you say – it’s how you say it. Those in low-UAI countries appreciate a “tell it to me straight” attitude, without hiding behind flowery language or evasive statements. Being straightforward and honest with in communications with your audience will gain their respect and trust – don’t make the mistake of being too emotive with your words, which can turn them off.

What type of campaigns do well?

Campaigns that do well in low-UAI cultures are one where innovation takes centre stage – where the campaign incorporates different kinds of media, relies on original content, and invites the audience to participate rather than passively consuming. For example:

  • Vitamin Water took creatives all over the UK by surprise by delivering a crate of flavoured water and a Berg Little Printer as part of the #ShineBright campaign; this encouraged people to post photos and Tweet about it. But it wasn’t just to bribe us into social media dialogue – it was an attempt to connect creatives all over the country and raise awareness of a #ShineBright creativity competition. This positioned Vitamin Water as a company seeking to bring together those with the brightest ideas and influence.
  • Coca-Cola came up with an app at the time of the Olympics that allowed people to ‘Track the Beat’. A song written by Mark Ronson and Katy B that involved the footage and sound of Olympic athletes became the cornerstone of the campaign, and with the app people all over the globe could ‘collect’ the individual beats and put their own stamp on it. In addition, they built the ‘Coca-Cola Beatbox’ on the Olympic site, an interactive structure which let people create their own music from the song’s beats from touching different parts of it.
  • Snickers’ ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’ campaign teamed funny adverts with a more interactive approach; commuters were handed ‘Emergency Snickers’ packages with ‘glass’ that could be broken in case of hunger emergency, celebrities were persuaded to tweet out of character things in the name of the campaign, and the Metro ran a column collecting people’s ‘You’re Not You’ stories.

Marketing in a low-UAI country is challenging because it demands constant innovation to keep audiences interested; but exciting, because it also means we are on the front line globally. The main focus for marketing strategies should be to keep things new and exciting. Don’t coddle your audience; give them the freedom to make their own decisions, startle them, and take advantage of their capacity to take change in their stride.

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