In Britain, one in seven of us no longer carry any cash with us day-to-day, and half of us typically have less than five pounds on us at any given time. Assuming you still have a few old pennies and a crumpled-up fiver languishing somewhere in the depths of your pocket, take them out. Take a look at them.
If you’ve pulled out a coin, you’ll be faced with an image of the Queen, the head of the UK and a symbol of the monarchy that stretches back throughout British history. If it’s a five pound note you’re holding, you’ll find the face of Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who took the country through WWII and coined what we’ve come to know as the ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the US. Point being that every time we spend, receive or handle cash we absorb a bit of British heritage, we subliminally soak up symbols of Britishness, and we hold in our hands a little piece of national identity.
Last year, Visa launched their “Cashfree and Proud” campaign across Europe. Designed to encourage cardholders to liberate themselves from cash, the campaign was part of Visa UK’s aim to make cash “peculiar” by 2020. This aim seems a little ambitious, especially since cash still accounts for 40% of all transactions in the UK. But the campaign touches on a wider shift that’s gaining momentum the world over: the shift to card and mobile payments at the expense of cash.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago when credit and debit cards were used solely for those one-off investments: new cars, widescreen televisions or, in Steve’s case, Fendi clutch bags. Today, we tap our contactless cards to pay for the most mundane of everyday items, from pints of milk to single bananas, and we don’t think twice about it. Somewhat unsurprisingly, industry experts have predicted that by 2025, notes and coins will account for just 27% of payments in the UK. While this will hardly make cash “peculiar”, it will mark another stage in the gradual move towards a completely cashless society.
This, of course, has its benefits for a whole host of different parties. From a governmental point of view, a cashless society means all payments can be traced and recorded, reducing tax evasion and increasing security. For retailers, the costs of cash handling are eliminated, buying them more time and increasing their profit margins. For us as consumers, we are less vulnerable to physical theft if we never have cash on us, and on a basic level, coins and banknotes are simply unhygienic.
But the prospect of a cashless society isn’t without its setbacks. Particularly in big cities, homeless people, Big Issue sellers and individuals who rely on handouts will find themselves left behind as fewer and fewer people carry loose change. We’ll also see an increase in cybercrime as the emphasis moves away from physical cash and onto online and digital transactions. Then there’s the larger issues of privacy and anonymity, which are put at stake as all of our expenditures become transparent and trackable.
For better or for worse, the end of cash is nigh. But as currency becomes digitalised and we lose any tangible sense of money, we lose something else in the process. If you take another look at that penny, that fifty pence piece, that five-pound note you dug out earlier, you’ll see that we won’t just lose the tactile nature of the cash; we’ll lose the historic faces and national icons emblazoned across our coins and notes.
Whatever the currency, whichever the nation, these faces, icons and images define how a nation perceives itself, acting as symbols of the cultural identity that the nation wants to promote. In the US, the physical currency traces the history of the nation. From George Washington and the Great Seal on the one-dollar note, through to Benjamin Franklin and Independence Hall on the one-hundred-dollar note, US banknotes are symbols of the values upon which the country was founded. Should it be a national concern then, that over 80% of consumer spending in the US is cashless?
To answer this question, it’s worth considering the value cash brings to a nation. Of course, this isn’t about the monetary value of cash. This is about its unique ability to circulate national values and reinforce the national identity. Taken in this sense, cash is priceless. It is a way of communicating the national brand within the country and beyond. That’s right, we’re living in a time where brands extend beyond corporations and businesses. Towns, cities and nations are looking to project their own brand, their identity and their distinct appeal to the wider world. This is place branding.
As an example, Paraguay employed a Madrid-based agency to design a new country logo and formulate a marketing strategy that would paint Paraguay as a place ripe for investment. Of course, most nation branding doesn’t tend to be as explicit as this, but it’s important to understand that every country has a certain image it wants to project to the wider world. In Britain, the Queen and the country’s royal legacy are longstanding players in the national brand, with Buckingham Palace drawing over 15 million tourists each year. With this in mind, the fact that every British coin and banknote bears the Queen’s face is significant. Cash becomes an advert for, and a key mode of enforcing, brand Britain. What’s more, it’s an advert that’s placed directly into the hands of nationals and visitors alike.
But branding is about more than just adverts and marketing; branding is about crafting belonging, creating something people can feel a part of. And nation branding is no different. As well as attracting the rest of the world, a national brand should unite nationals under a set of common values and goals. Cash, with its unique ability to circulate national images, icons and messages, gives countries a way of doing just this. Whether it’s British pound sterling, the US dollar, the Euro or the Japanese yen, cash is more than just a simple medium of exchange. It’s a token of national belonging.
As place branding becomes increasingly important for nations the world over, we ought to consider the implications of our gradual march towards a cashless society. In eradicating cash, nations lose a key mode of circulating and celebrating their cultural identity, their history and their national brand.