Feature

Britain today

In 2004, Alex McKie began visiting every corner of Britain to take its collective temperature. She met gang members on housing estates, watched tartan-clad dancers and caber-tossing at a Highland gathering and experienced the grim reality of a Llandudno boarding house. McKie died suddenly in June 2013 aged 57. She had been a respected senior planner, with stints at Saatchi & Saatchi, J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, as well as a strategist at The Henley Centre for Customer Management, writer, anthropologist and researcher. Now, four of McKie's friends - Fiona Stewart, Judie Lannon, Julian Saunders and Mike Leibling - have compiled her thoughts and anecdotes into a book. What follows are edited extracts of Alex's Journey.

Britain today

The three Britains: the edges, modern Middle Britain and London

Life at the edges of Britain is very different to that of the cities, and the pattern of differences began to reveal itself. Not only are there fewer people at the edges but the economy is radically different: the patterns and pace of work, how people socialise and live. London is the odd one out, different to all the other cities of Britain.

Amazon as the saviour of the edges

Digital has transformed life at the edges. I saw more Amazon deliveries in the far north than anywhere else in Britain. On Shapinsay, my B&B was a delight – there were no laminated signs or strange breakfast rituals here. It was run by an elderly couple who were hospitality personified. Despite their age and geographic isolation, they were some of the most connected people I’ve met. Avid users of the internet for B&B bookings and staying in touch with guests, they seemed genuinely fascinated by the people and stories from around the world. Although city dwellers might dismiss the people who live at the edges as being behind the times, in many ways these far-flung parts of the country seem more exotic and well-adapted for the future than the rest of us.

How the nature of trust has changed

Trust has become more fragile. It is more personal; we trust people but not institutions. Trust is dynamic, it’s fluid and constantly changing. This annoys companies and politicians alike. They would like to be able to get a good trust score that they could incorporate as a target to go into the balance sheet. Trust isn’t like that any more. Many complain about the lack of deference and a more challenging view of trust. In many ways, it’s a positive. Increasingly, we expect to be treated as equals, as adults. The old view of authority figure as a "parent" and the recipient ideally responding as a "grateful child" now seems extraordinarily dated.

Making tech predictions is difficult

People have got it wrong about almost every form of technology. When I was a child 50 years ago, there were predictions that we would be having holidays in space within 50 years.

Shopping turned out not to be the answer

In 2004, we had gone shopping crazy and the obsession with consumption was a risk. By 2011, travelling through the middle of the country, I was shocked by the pace at which high streets are emptying and becoming lost spaces. The conventional view is that we are living through times of unprecedented change, but I wonder if the reality is that we are moving out of times of unprecedented stability.

The global village was never meant to mean homogeneity

The idea of the global village was invented by Marshall McLuhan in the 60s and the expression was taken up by supporters of the early wave of globalisation in the 80s. This first wave of 20th-century globalisation was driven primarily by American companies that wanted to sell their brands around the world and the idea of the global village was often used to describe a world where people become increasingly similar and that there would be little difference in the consumer in Paris to one in New York or Tokyo.

The move towards homogeneity was embraced by the companies but was the opposite of McLuhan’s forecast. McLuhan concentrated on "village" rather than "global". He expected the global village to be characterised by gossip, diversity and often rows. He wasn’t expecting to find a quiet life.

While marketers have concentrated on homogeneity and brand guidelines, village inhabitants have chosen diversity.

Homogeneity was the last thing that McLuhan expected and it may be that the companies that did so well in the first wave of globalisation will find the next wave more challenging.

Brands and the global village

Brands are a major part of the global-village lifestyle. As our social structures have fragmented and weakened, the commercial structures have become stronger. But it may be that brands have reached their peak; much of their glamour has disappeared with familiarity. Many have become the benchmark rather than leading edge. They remain strong businesses but have become less appealing to global youth. The old world of being able to control your brand is disappearing. Young people having grown up with brands and know how to dismember them as well as create them. They are interested in playing with brands, using them as raw materials on which to develop their identity. Just as music is becoming something to be made your own, increasingly so are brands.

Brands exist only in the minds and memories of their customers. Designers and digital agencies tend to assume that the brand can be controlled by its corporate owner. They place emphasis on the visual identity of brands – the name, the logo, the design style – and these can be controlled (at least to a degree). The role of brands may be changing but their influence on our lives and expectations is considerable. Part of their influence is accidental.

Companies do not have a plan to change the way we see the world, but advertising and marketing is a system with a strong feedback loop. Trends are strong (and agencies want to win awards, which you do by breaking the conventions a little) and so the ads tend to follow one another, copying music, film and editing styles.

How we use brands to signal what we have in common

Brands themselves act as symbols of common values. With little time to chat and get to know each other, brands give immediate clues of things you might have in common with another person. Mobile phones are an interesting case in point. There are three layers of conversation. Which phone do you have? An iPhone (a global symbol if ever there was one), a Samsung Galaxy, a BlackBerry? Probably not a Nokia any more. Then there is the network. Are you an Orange person? Or O2? A Vodafone corporate type?

The network may be saying something about you – although, in some parts of Britain, there is relatively little choice if you actually want to use your phone. Then, if the conversation is going well, what apps do you have? Let’s see your pictures. It’s an easy way to begin a conversation and, in these days of political correctness and rather vague social norms, brands are a revealing but safe place to begin a conversation.

Alex’s Journey is available at £25 (including postage and packaging) from AlliancePublishingPress.com/alex-s-journey.html. Net proceeds will go to City Lit, the London adult-education college where McKie was a regular student

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