An American fish in a very British pond
We share the same language, much of the same history, and – at first blush – the same culture, but below the surface of Brits and Americans, there are some very real differences that run deeper than the pronunciation of the word ‘Aluminium’. These nuances are particularly important in the world of brands and retail; different cultures mean different consumers, and this in turn means a different challenge for marketers and service designers.
For instance, Americans tend to be more openly expressive and emotive than us Brits, who are generally more reserved, easily embarrassed, and often use humour to mask true emotion (using humour to hide our true feelings? Pshh never). This is reflected in the different customer service models of the two: the US is renowned for its enthusiastic customer service, where customers have come to expect a high level of attention, charisma, and ‘the customer is always right’ attitude from staff, who will greet you on arrival with a warm smile and ‘here to help’ demeanour. British consumers, on the other hand, appreciate a more pared-back experience, and expect staff to have a reserved agreeableness, with a ‘the customer is the customer’ attitude, allowing for a more independent shopping experience.
These key attitudinal differences can be traced all the way back to the beginning of modern America, where arguably only the most independent, confident and ambitious individuals embarked on the Trans-Atlantic journey – inadvertently shaping the culture of the new country they were founding. This culture still exists today, with the ‘American Dream’ celebrating the right to succeed in life, and applauding attributes such as charismatic leadership, power, and a willing to sell yourself and take risks.
Meanwhile, back in the UK we continued to perpetuate a culture of implicit expectation, rules, and hierarchy; whilst success was encouraged, it was always within the confines of ‘permission’ and was often defined by strict class divides. Again, this has shaped the culture that we now live in, where we naturally conform to group expectations, and are still haunted by traditionalist views of self-expression as frivolous. To outsiders, we can come across as reserved or cold – but this really isn’t the case! The problem is that we are taught by our parents – who were previously taught by their parents – to show emotional restraint.
Understanding these cultural differences recently became a hot topic in The Gild office after we were commissioned to work with a global lingerie brand. After moving to the UK, our clients were seeing high levels of footfall, but were struggling to get us Brits to actually part with our cash.
Lingerie as a category is something inherently private and delicate, and so our gut instinct was that this glamorous and unapologetic American institution just wasn’t resonating with the more reserved British consumer. To get a better understanding of what was happening, we needed to take a deeper look at our histories, and specifically how our relationship with the lingerie category has evolved.
We conducted in-depth interviews with a selection of industry experts, including a Cultural Theorist with specialism in American History; a Burlesque performer and costume designer; and a renowned journalist and feminist. These interviews gave us fantastic insight into the history and development of the modern British psyche, and how this differs from that of our cousins in the States.
We found that ultimately form falls second behind function for the Brit when it comes to lingerie – an attitude that harks back to the Second World War, where the demands of life mean that women needed clothes that were practical, comfortable, and fit for wartime work. Meanwhile, across the pond there were fewer restrictions on fabrics, so American women were enjoying the luxuries of fuller skirts, colourful heels, and nylon stockings. British women considered their American counterparts to be the vision of ‘put together’ sexy, a feeling that was perpetuated by the Golden Age of Hollywood glamour and the likes of Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe. This red-lipsticked, nylon-stockinged version of sexy was totally disparate from British sensibilities.
Although British attitudes have come on leaps and bounds since the 50s, lingerie is still a relatively new and evolving concept in the UK, fraught with social codes and conventions. And so – needing to dive a little deeper – we embarked on a full insight journey, interviewing a wide variety of different consumer types across the country over a 3-month period. After locking ourselves in a room for a month, we came out the other end with a precious 200-page document we internally dubbed ‘The Lingerie Bible’.
Our recommendations to the client focused on making the in-store experience more private, reassuring, and empowering for the consumer. We created a space where she is encouraged to create her own story with the lingerie, driving her curiosity and confidence without losing the ambiance and indulgence of the brand that resonates so strongly with the consumer. Ultimately, they needed to create the perfect balancing act: make the experience sexy, indulgent and aspirational, whilst ensuring an overriding sense of comfort and control.
The insights we gained from this project were pertinent and interesting from a lingerie perspective, but cross-cultural differences are relevant and important for all brands making the transition – be it from the US to the UK (or vice versa), but also the Middle East and Asia. Understanding nuances between your current consumer and your target consumer are key in understanding how success will both be created and measured overseas.