Fifteenth months on from the middle of the pandemic, Sorcha Garduce, Insight Director at Newsworks, examines how far things have changed for the UK population in such a short space of time.

With the invasion of Ukraine and – closer to home – the cost-of-living crisis taking hold, the disruption of the pandemic almost feels like a distant memory now.

Back in 2021, when we launched our last major research project ‘Come Together’, we found that almost two-thirds (64%) of the population were feeling positive about the year ahead. And there was undoubtedly a real sense of optimism in the air. We were looking forward to getting back out, doing the things we enjoy and returning to some sort of normality.

Last month, we conducted a survey with One Poll of 2,000 nationally representative people in the UK to understand where we, as nation, stand right now to discover what if anything has changed.

New challenges ahead

Seemingly, 15 months is a long time in research. The optimism we felt last year was rather short lived – decreasing starkly by a 17%, from 64% to 53%. However, the cause is no longer dominated by COVID, but by new challenges that lie ahead.

The cost of living is now the number-one societal concern in the UK, overtaking both the economy and Brexit since we last tracked this. And we’re not talking about a minor increase here – it’s risen by nearly three-and-a-half times, from 13% to 44%. In fact, in addition to the economy and Brexit, concern about the cost of living now supersedes everything else (the NHS, overseas conflict, the environment, national debt and mental health).

Given the dramatic increase in inflation, seven in 10 adults in the UK (72%) now feel pessimistic about the cost of living, and major concerns about our personal finances has increased by 71% (from 31% to 53%).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, to help try and navigate through this situation, people now have a heightened interest in financial issues – 68% of the population say they’re in touch with what’s going on around issues of finance, compared to 58% back in December 2020.

Incidentally, it’s an important area for news brands to ensure that they’re supporting their readers by providing accurate and trusted information. It is, after all, where we turn to for this. For readers, news brands are the most trusted source to keep them informed about financial issues above all other media, and by some considerable distance.

Back to the research at hand, and the good news in all of this is that despite the challenges, we want to remain united as a nation, something that has stayed largely consistent from ‘Come Together’ right up until now. Over three quarters (76%) agree that “when bad things happen in the country it’s important that the country comes together to make things right” (compared to 80% in December 2020). And over seven in 10 (72%) agree that “we need to try harder to put our differences aside and come together as a country again” (compared to 78% in December 2020).

Probably the best example of this is the outpouring of support for Ukraine. Remarkably, more than £1m an hour was raised in the few days following the launch of the DEC (Disaster Emergency Committee) Ukraine Appeal back in March.

Our own research shows that over two-thirds of the nation (67%) agree “it’s inspiring how the British population are welcoming refugees at this time of crisis”. National news brands have really come into their own throughout this period – not only through providing factual trusted information about the crisis, but also by setting up campaigns to raise both money, supplies and awareness with incredible agility.

Impact of rising inflation

Closer to home, the impact of rising inflation (now at 9%) will be felt across the income spectrum. Though its effect won’t be equal, of course, we’re united in the concern we feel for ourselves, our families, and society.

In a recent survey of News UK readers, almost nine in 10 (88%) said they’re worried about increasing energy and heating costs impacting their household financial circumstances. 70% of people are concerned about the impact of increasing food and drink costs and just over six in 10 (61%) are worried about the impact of car fuel price rises. In fact, only 5% said they weren’t concerned about any of the survey options presented to them.

It’s at times like these that we will be looking to cut back on goods and services, switch to cheaper alternatives and reduce spending on non-essential items. And for advertisers there’s an opportunity to step in right now and stand together with the great British public.

However, consumers don’t currently appear to have much confidence that advertisers will offer support. Research from BritainThinks found that only 18% of the public believe the UK’s top retailers will make products more affordable in response to the cost-of-living crisis. Now really is the time for brands to communicate authentic, helpful and meaningful messaging in trusted environments so they can reassure consumers that they’re there to help.

Tesco is a lovely example of this, with its recent ‘Use Up Day’ campaign encouraging UK households to use food they already have in the cupboard when cooking. Native articles offering budget and environmentally-friendly food hacks are both engaging and – with a claim to also make a household saving of £260 per year – are incredibly valuable. This differentiates them as a brand which is not only demonstrating it understands the public mood but is proactively doing something to help – by engaging readers on a mass scale via meaningful, useful content.

This isn’t something just applicable to supermarket brands – all brands should be looking at appropriate ways to follow suit, by communicating authentically, how they can help people through these difficult times. For all the talk, now is the time for brands to put purpose front and centre, and show customers, and potential new customers, just what they can do to help them.

Why? Because not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also pay dividends in the future.