It is now over five years since the global financial crisis first hit, yet the impact is still being felt around the world. Against a backdrop of poor credit ratings, an unstable Eurozone and even stalling growth in China, we are all slowly coming to terms with the “new normal” – that economic uncertainty is here to stay.
In this context, businesses are anxious to understand how the economic climate is affecting consumer behaviour – and to do this, brands need to understand the underlying drivers of human behaviour and respond appropriately if they are to grow in tough times.
The overriding emotion guiding consumers post-recession is a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. As a result, people tend to look for things that can control to provide a sense of security, putting every decision under the microscope and seeking out brands that reinforce enduring values – whether consciously or unconsciously.
In a bid to understand the impact of a sustained recession in more depth, we conducted research using our specialist methodology NeedScope – a tool which we use to identify different emotive needs among consumers. This includes a range of techniques, including projection to help us really get to the emotional truth of what people are feeling.
The study revealed six different emotive responses to the recession – each of which requires a different approach by marketers. Our study also revealed how much attitudes have changed over time, as it built on research we conducted immediately after the crisis hit. We found that the short term reactions initially shown by consumers have now given way to longer term coping strategies.
Six different responses
At the less anxious end of the spectrum are those who refuse to be weighed down by the gloomier outlook – either resigning themselves to the new environment or actively resisting it. Others turn to those around them or strengthen their own resources to weather the storm. Finally, we identified two groups of more anxious consumers – whose strategies are more defensive and focused on survival.
When the recession first hit these consumers were least concerned, and least likely to change their habits. Now, the visible impact on others around them, and sometimes themselves, has affected their world. Yet life must be lived, recession or not! A brand targeting this need must be optimistic and provide an escape. Coca-Cola has struck a chord in consumers with its Open Happiness campaign, as it provides a sense of hope in tough times.
These consumers responded to the recession with a ‘fight’ mentality, resisting anxiety by making smart choices and refusing to be daunted. To reach these consumers brands must show some defiance, and provide strength in the face of adversity. Diesel’s Be Stupid campaign challenges consumers to take risks, presenting a world where individuals have the power to direct their own lives.
For these consumers, coping with the recession is all about keeping a sense of balance in the household, staying pragmatic and working together to face the challenges. A brand in this space must support and reinforce relationships. Levi’s does just that in a campaign that talks about everyone’s work being equally important.
These consumers were confident they could stay a step ahead in the recession, initially seeing it almost as an opportunity to shine. Now, conscious of the impact it has had on those around them, they tend to avoid overt displays of wealth. Louis Vuitton has recognised this by toning down its image and leveraging heritage and quality to position products as a long term investments.
This group of consumers were most traumatised by the uncertainty of the downturn, and now are most in need of reassurance. They defend what they value most, prioritising and sacrificing to do the best they can. A brand targeting this need must focus on providing peace of mind, such as De Beers, whose campaigns emphasise unchanging love.
For many people planning and preparation were their ‘go-to’ tools for dealing with the impact of the recession. Now, more than ever, they know they mustn’t lose control. It’s about getting their money working for them, making sure they invest wisely. These consumers value a straightforward approach to marketing, such as Ivory’s focus on simple, honest product truths.
Faced with these very different needs, the real question for businesses is not simply how to reassure consumers in a time of crisis, but what form should that reassurance take? A ‘Lead’ consumer would be left cold by Ivory’s straightforward approach, just as a ‘Defend’ consumer would be daunted by the invitation to ‘Be Stupid’. The key is to understand the emotional space that a brand operates in, and therefore what particular anxieties or concerns need to be addressed so any brand messages about the recession resonate with consumers.
One thing above all is clear: these questions can no longer be ignored. Consumers have had to adapt to the “new normal” – and brands must too.
by Rosie Hawkins, global head, brand & communication, TNS