Big business should think small world to cut through with citizens  

How do you feel about life right now? In the last few years, the world has confronted more ‘grand challenges’ than ever before. We’ve suffered through a pandemic, recorded more extreme weather events and witnessed the start of devastating wars. And here in the UK, we’ve seen three Prime Ministers, seemingly endless political scandals, public sector strikes, an NHS under pressure and a cost-of-living crisis that the country is still struggling to bounce back from. To name a few cheery things… 

In light of what some call a ‘permacrisis’, it wouldn’t be surprising if people in the UK were – frankly – a bit depressed. And indeed, recent ONS data shows a fall in overall happiness. 

But that’s only one side of the story. 

National pessimists, but personal optimists  

A study for The Guardian Advertising released in July reported that while four in five Brits think the world out there will stay the same or get worse, the same number of people feel that their personal life will stay the same or get better. And a bulletin by Thinks Insight & Strategy reported something similar, if less extreme, finding that less than half (44%) of people are optimistic about the UK, but almost two-thirds (63%) feel positive about their personal life.  

Happiness is in the simple things 

This ability to partially wall off the external from the internal is well understood in psychology: research shows that most people see themselves as separated from the “world out there”, and while it’s (mostly) out of our power to influence that world, we do have some control over or own lives. It’s only natural then that people focus on their personal worlds. 

According to The Guardian Advertising study, 68% of people are more focused on “living well” these days. 70% said they are searching for moments of joy in the everyday is important to live well, and that they are searching for joy in “simpler things” – including journaling, hair care or having a decent tea break. A recent Saatchi & Saatchi ethnographic study called What the fuck is going on? arrived at the same conclusion, finding that the 13 people they visited in their own homes for half a day were very protective of these everyday routines and moments so they have “always something to look forward to” despite all the negativity that’s out there. 

Big businesses expected to support small worlds 

This focus on the simple things is an interesting finding in and of itself, but our own research suggests that what people do in their small worlds to create and maintain happiness also has relevance for what expectations they have of companies, especially large businesses. 

In 2023, the Headland Strategy & Insight team, together with our Citizen & Community brand campaigning offer, conducted dozens of focus groups with people from across the UK, with a focus on the responsibilities of companies in their role as “good corporate citizens”.  

The common thread in all these conversations: rather than being sold on the national, social and environmental value businesses say they create through their various initiatives, people want to know what’s in it for them and the communities they live in. Or, in their own words: 

“Inclusive fashion, sustainable sourcing, recycling…these are really massive topics. But be realistic. We are average people here, we are struggling financially, so recycling and these other things – how much is it really resonating with my life, and helping me?” (Female, 40 years old, single mother, working as counsellor) 

“It’s about the things that your local community is actually going to see get done. Take the swimming pools all over the country that are closing because the cost of energy that it takes to heat them. But people rely on them, so if a company were to foot the bill to help save my local swimming pool, that would show that they care about my community.” (Male, 29 years old, working as property manager) 

The opportunity in participating at a local level 

This doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t have ambitions to make a positive difference in the “world out there”. But when thinking about citizens, there is an expectation that they ground their ambitions in people’s ‘small’ worlds.  

Saving the community swimming pool or pub that would otherwise have to close could be a good way of doing that – as Scottish Power has done with the Kenmuir Arms in New Luce.  

But “individualised” impact can also be large-scale. For example, as one of the largest youth employers in the country, KFC has created an employability programme called “Hatch”, aimed specifically at disadvantaged young people. The aim is to help 6,000 16–24-year-olds across the UK to build their work skills, confidence and land their first job.  

As businesses and Corporate Affairs teams look ahead to 2024, there is a need to prioritise limited resources where they will make the most reputational impact. Not living up to people’s expectations of doing good in a very tangible and individualised way might lead to backlash and result in a disconnect from your community promises altogether. Rooting your plans in citizen insight, it’s people’s ‘small’ worlds where you can make the biggest difference – and reap reputational rewards.    

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