Observations by Claire Irving

We were back in England this August.  Although we were lucky enough to miss the carnage caused by the hurricane and earthquake we landed in the UK in the aftermath of the riots.  Everyone I spoke with there expressed a sense of disbelief and palpable anger at the wanton vandalism and destruction that had spread like wildfire across Britain’s streets.

The politicians were playing the blame game.  The right wing were blaming the parents of the youths and their apparent inability to instil moral values in their children while those left of centre were blaming the credit crunch, the slow economy, poor jobs market and lack of prospects many of the young face.  Others were blaming social networking and the safety net provided by social security benefits which, in their view, induce a lack of personal responsibility.

Whatever the spur, teens and early twenty-something’s face long term economic insecurity not experienced for decades.  Their frustration and anxiety is not unique it’s just manifested in different ways through every demographic segment.  Concerned pensioners see their capital challenged by rising inflation and low interest rates, pre-retirees watch helplessly as share prices seem to collapse more frequently than in living memory, and experienced, skilled workers face the constant fear of job loss.  Although these are worldwide issues I got the distinct impression Britain’s spirit is more badly broken than in other countries.  It’s suffering from a negativity that needs to be halted before it becomes endemic and repeatedly passed through generations.

This lack of confidence was reflected across the media in the UK while we were there.  The business pages reported Dyson, the vacuum cleaner brand and one of Britain’s brightest entrepreneurial companies, is considering moving its research and development operations overseas due to a dearth of UK engineering talent.  The British Chamber of Commerce reported employers don’t have confidence in the skills of those who leave school.  Another article cited the characteristic British reserve leaves UK companies struggling to compete against more confident overseas rivals as leaders fail to be decisive in seizing opportunities to develop or make their companies more efficient.

Even the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron has moved beyond measuring functional measures of satisfaction (taxation, homeland security etc) and is now gauging emotional drivers of productivity.  UK public opinion indicates Britons feel the country’s best days are far behind us.  Cameron’s remedy is represented by his vision of the Big Society which calls for a less self-serving mentality and an altogether more positive mentality of ‘What More Can I Do”.  This represents a big cultural step-change for Britain — after all we’re better known for our bad teeth and our deference than our can-do attitude.

Although US consumer confidence isn’t exactly at a record high, especially when we read about the zero job growth in August.  And, some may say the United States has lost its reputation for innovation to Asia and India, I still believe Britain can learn some cultural lessons from the States which may help to put the Great back in Britain.  But, if customer service is a mechanic to instil confidence, well Britain still has a long way to go.

John Lewis, the UK department store retailer made its reputation based upon delivering excellence in customer service.  Its strap-line of “Never Knowingly Undersold” is emblazoned on the consciousness of most middle class Brits. Every employee is a Partner – their share in the company supposedly fosters a sense of ownership and personal accountability.  I paid a visit to John Lewis this last trip back.  Whilst sauntering around the store, I asked a young man (probably late teens) where the Christening gifts were.  It was like interacting with a customer service manual – he awkwardly walked me to the gifts (probably on page 2), looked at me nervously and then offered to check the Internet catalogue if what I wanted wasn’t in store (probably page 3). His response was efficient yet he lacked the extroversion, energy, personality, and proactivity I’ve come to love from US customer service staff – in short, he lacked confidence.  Even American-originated brands with reputations for global consistency aren’t swinging customer service in the UK.

This experience made me think about how generic characteristics that once defined good brands are now shifting.  In today’s more sophisticated world, confidence has become a mandatory value for brands. This confidence allows them market entry and the ability to attract global investment and continued support.  Confidence is the basis for more emotive and differentiating brand values that are critical for leadership brands to own. Confident brands are curious – they’re unafraid to ask questions or view the world in different ways.  They refuse to accept the obvious and relish the opportunity to seek greater understanding.  They are also creative in how they seize and deliver opportunities. They are responsible – they believe in their decisions and stand by the people who support them.  Even more critical, confident brands are synonymous with truthfulness – their tonality and people who represent them show their personality.  These brands are clear about what they are and aren’t good at and they are willing to admit their mistakes.

According to the eminent psychotherapist Jung, we all have a shadow in which reside potent personality characteristics we don’t consciously know of but which need to be made known.  So whilst I’m not suggesting service staff of British-based companies adopt Americanisms that won’t come naturally, I encourage them to embrace their Jungian shadow and find their version of inner confidence.  A slice of American positivity and confidence could make a material difference on the front line, as well as in head office, and help propel the UK economy forward.