Fundamental changes to the make-up and behaviour of families living in the UK have big implications for the brands, charities and government wanting to connect with, service and support them.
The modern family - as brilliantly portrayed in the eponymous American mockumentary sitcom - no longer much resembles the traditional nuclear family. If you've been raised by the same two married parents and now have your own children with their other biological parent, you are in fact in the minority.
So what does the modern British family look like and how can brands and organisations make themselves more relevant to its emerging needs?
To answer these questions, we spent a week deeply immersed with 32 families (mothers and children aged 12 or under) in an online research community on the Together platform, to find out more about their everyday lives, needs, wants and desires.
Families come in all shapes and sizes
In order to represent the modern British family, we invited single parents, extended family households, same-sex parents, minority ethnic and mixed-race families, step or blended families, foster and adoptive families, diaspora families as well as more traditional nuclear families to join us in conversation.
Here’s some of what we learned during the process...
#1 The quest for affordable quality time as a family
For all their tremendous variety, all families essentially aspire to much the same timeless things: cuddles and kisses, meals together, wholesome family activities and memorable holidays. However, in one way or another, all families ‘struggle to juggle’. Specifically, they find it hard to keep three considerations in a fine balance:
Either time is in relatively good supply, but families are short of cash; or there is enough money to go around but time is limited to do quality activities as a family; or there is quality in the interactions, activities or holidays families have, but this requires time and may take its toll on the family budget. Hitting the sweet spot where time, money and quality intersect in a way that satisfies all members of the family is the challenge.
#2 Some families are more equal than others
However, achieving this balance is particularly difficult for most ‘non-traditional’ families, for different reasons.
#3 Same-sex families with dependent children are becoming more common and are generally functional and happy households, but they continue to experience specific difficulties. For instance, same-sex couples are more likely to be cut off from their families of origins because some parents and relatives might not approve of their ‘lifestyle choices’ and because many move away from their place of birth to larger, more diverse cities. This tends to result in greater social isolation. It means same-sex partners cannot rely as much as other parents on the support of ‘nans’ and ‘grandads’ when they are under pressure.
In the case of lesbian same-sex couples, mothers experience a similar pay differential as heterosexual women do which, in 2018, is 18.4% in the UK. Multiply that by two women’s incomes, and it is easy to see that lesbian couples with children would be at greater financial risk than heterosexual families.
#4 Ethnic minority and mixed-race families are twice as likely to live in poverty as white British households. Ethnic minority and mixed-race families are also more likely to live in areas where deprivation is higher and employment opportunities are fewer. And while rates of academic attainment are higher among most ethnic minority groups than for white British groups, this does not always translate into better jobs and higher pay. Unemployment rates are higher in some communities. Asian women, in particular are more likely to be economically inactive, as well as having greater unpaid caring responsibilities. Money pressures can be huge. However, time to do things as a family can be in greater supply and many ethnic minority households will benefit from a good network of support.
#5 Diaspora families, that is, families whose members are scattered around the globe, have their own specific challenges. In the modern world, and especially in a postcolonial society and economic powerhouse like the UK, diaspora families are common. Some are doing extremely well (they may have migrated to the UK as professionals who settled successfully and chose to raise their children here) and others are not (they may be economic migrants or refugees). Whatever their financial circumstances, most diaspora families are cut off from the day-to-day support of their extended family. In a similar way to same-sex families, they cannot rely on the support of ‘nans’ and ‘grandads’ when they are under pressure.
#6 Step and blended families have their own challenges, too. With more than 40% of couples getting divorced and the majority of divorced couples remarrying, the reality of this new and increasingly common family arrangement needs to be taken seriously. Stepfamilies and blended families may be more financially stable and robust than single parent families, but combining new families is challenging emotionally for all parties. Finding ‘quality’ in this fraught environment can be near impossible. Time also becomes a more precious commodity as ‘family members’ can be reluctant to spend time together: many activities now have to take place one on one. Moreover, some of the relatives and friends that used to be part of the support networks are likely to have cut ties with the new step or blended family, leaving them exposed at a critical time.
Yet, of all the families we spoke to, single parent families were under the greatest strain. There are around two million single parents in the UK, making up nearly a quarter of families with dependent children. Almost a third (32%) of single parents are not in work, which puts particular strains on family finances. Money is in very short supply and a constant source of worry for many, especially as state provisions are shrinking. Single mums also find it exhausting to be the sole decision-maker. Some have to manage uneasy relationships with ex-partners. They have high expectations of themselves and of their children as they try hard to set routines, instill discipline, oversee school and homework, make sure everyone stays healthy, manage screen time, and so on. The families that succeeded against these odds were the ones who could rely on grandparents for both regular and exceptional support. As the African proverb goes, it really does ‘take a village to raise a child’.
Needless to say, there can be a great deal of overlap between these family types. I, for one, used to be part of a nuclear family, did a painful stint as a single mum and am now part of a pretty happy blended, diaspora, mixed race family. So here you have it...
What can brands and organisations do to respond to these changes?
Actually, many successful brands and organisations got there already. Much as I hate to admit it, McDonald’s get this absolutely right. ‘Happy Meals’ remain so very popular (despite all sorts of health warnings) because they bring a smile to children’s faces, make parents feel good that they can bring a bit of joy, don’t cost the earth and are a time-saving device. More recently, its ad featuring a stepdad’s repeated failures at bonding with his new partner’s son until they share a Big Mac worked a treat for me.
Similarly, McCain’s ‘We are family’ campaign, which portrays all sorts of family arrangements united around meal times, regularly features on list of best campaigns for 2017 and has been reworked for specific family types.
For all the moral and political issues in relation to Facebook recently, a similar case can be made for it: Facebook brings families together across huge distances, costs nothing and can relieve time pressures by making it possible to stay in touch with a large number of family and friends in a simple and quick way. ..
In the charitable sector, fundraisers that bring families, and the wider community, together can be huge. Think Macmillan Cancer Support’s ‘Coffee Mornings’, one of the most successful fundraisers in the UK. They require relatively little time, do not require specific skills (apart from baking) and ooze quality. They link (mainly stay-at-home) mums thereby overcoming social isolation and providing a common purpose. No wonder this simple event raised almost £30,000,000 last year alone.
What these successful brands have in common is that they have found their own way of hitting the ‘sweet spot’, providing a genuine value exchange for the family by helping them achieve that difficult balance between time, money and quality.
A simple question for your brand
To make sure that your brand is relevant to the needs of today’s families, take a close look at your products, services and communications, and then answer honestly this question:
Are we helping to reduce the time pressures, lower the cost and improve the quality of the interactions people have as a family?
This will highlight how different families face imbalances and disruptions between time, money and quality, which will shed light on unmet needs and potential solutions. As ever, the devil will be in the detail: what each family considers to be ‘quality’ and ‘affordable’, for instance, will vary. But this framework provides a prism for brands and organisations to consider how they can make a positive difference to families.
If you need to understand and engage diverse or minority groups in society, or want to learn how your brand or organisation is perceived by people in these groups you can contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, call us on 020 3411 9006 or use the button below.