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Think BR: The Brits' approach to innovation - our understated nation

In this year of celebration Britain has the opportunity to showcase its innovative spirit, writes Jennifer Fisher, research manager, Ipsos Marketing.

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This is a year of celebration and worldwide attention for Britain. With the Jubilee and the Olympics there are plenty of opportunities to showcase Britain and present an image of ourselves as vibrant and progressive.

However, doing this overtly does not sit well with our natural tendency of British reserve. We prefer to look back on tradition and history. The Jubilee celebrations are an excellent example of what we do well. This chimes with the things British people say make them most proud to be British - our history, the NHS, the armed forces and the Royal Family.

It seems our approach to innovation follows a similar parallel of understatement

We have had a hand in the most innovative developments in the modern world, but do not seem to have had the aggressiveness to capitalise on them.

We developed theworld wide web, but do not own a primary search engine or platform; we invented the jet engine, but have no major aerospace brand; and we invented the first computing machine, but have no significant presence in the personal computer market.

We have also found a comfortable niche for ourselves. British brands doing well in the list of consumer Superbrands in 2012 were mainly luxury watch and classic car manufacturers, mirroring the 'traditional' and 'quality' British approach.

We can personally testify to this in celebrating the fact that at number 84 we were the highest rated research 'Superbrand'; perhaps a testament to our heritage and quality positioning.

So is our persona as a nation impacting our ability to be successful in the marketplace? Are we too pessimistic?


British consumers and Captains of Industry alike feel that there is a lot of room for improvement in British manufacturing and innovation. But we have not lost our mojo in the front end. We have a strong pipeline of ideas.

The UK in fact has the 7th greatest number of patent applications in the world, and also the 5th most patents already in force, behind only the US, Japan, China, and South Korea. This is an indicator of a continuing high level of creativity and design in research and development in the UK. So are we better than we give ourselves credit for?

Does the cautious nature of British consumers impact the innovation process? And similarly, do we also not admit it when we think something is actually quite good?

Brits appear to be understated in their response to products as well. Purchase intent scores in the UK, when indexed to the global average, are lower than other nationalities (except the Japanese and the Germans). The same applies to relevance and differentiation measures, but to a lesser extent.

This tendency for British consumers to understate in market research has implications for marketers when it comes to predicting the success of a new innovation. It becomes difficult to compare the performance of a new concept in the UK with other nations, as the concept scores will naturally be lower, even for the best concepts.

It may seem that a new product is not going to have as much success in the UK as in another country, for example Mexico, which falls at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Also, the understated response may not reflect reality, as the failure rate for new products in the UK is not any lower than that of other developed markets. To help minimise this risk, we take into account the way that the Brits evaluate the current competition for the new innovation, ie, their most often purchased product.

When the scores of new innovations are benchmarked against this, we remove the effect of the Brits’ cautiousness on performance of the new idea. This forms the premise of understanding the real intentions of reticent populations (like ours) or over-exuberant ones (like Mexico).

When it comes to innovating, we need to be aware of the fact that the Brits (whether manufacturers or consumers) are not always expressive about our opinions or ideas. We should therefore avoid making judgements at face value particularly in an understated nation like ours.

Jennifer Fisher, research manager, Ipsos Marketing

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