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By now it’s clear that anyone betting on the post-Covid inflationary period being a short-term blip rather than the beginning of a long spate of hardship has resolutely lost. Consumer sentiment is increasingly moving from nervousness to existential fear as the “heat or eat” dilemma looms ever larger this winter.
As expected, most early responses from brands regarding soaring inflation and price hikes have been limited to messages of empathy, transparency and understanding. But as the crisis persists, these communications appear hollow or even insulting to intended audiences.
Empathy alone is no longer enough
When Danish butter brand Lurpak hiked prices by 33% in July, it tried to quell consumer frustration by citing rising raw material prices and the need for farmers to receive fair pay. However, consumers were not convinced, taking to social media to protest. Supermarket chain Asda exacerbated the angst by placing security tags on the packs, and a media feeding frenzy ensued.
One reason the old standby brand messages around empathy aren’t landing today is that this isn’t just another inflationary period. Younger consumers and families haven’t lived through similar crises and don’t have a cyclical frame of reference or any historical perspective to believe things will improve. If brands understood this better, they’d be more careful about what they say and do.
Flashback to spring 2020. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, entire industries mobilized at speed to feed the vulnerable, move essential items, create PPE and build ventilators. At that time, many businesses pivoted sharply to address real human needs, from changing store hours to deferring payment requirements to retooling manufacturing output. The assistance was palpable and truly helpful, and many brands took their actions directly to the brand equity bank.
However, in early 2022, as inflation started hitting highs not seen in decades, taking the cost-of-living indices with it, we’ve seen little evidence of brands demonstrating the duty of care shown during the pandemic.
Instead, what we’ve seen from brands in the best cases has been the use of canned empathetic messaging—and in the worst cases, a smattering of insensitive ads about things like cuddling your pet to keep warm in the face of rising heating costs.
Where are brands going wrong?
Aside from falling back to antiquated inflation- and recession-focused marketing toolboxes, the big miss here has been a fundamental lack of understanding of consumers’ frame of mind.
Not knowing what is truly important to consumers, or what “value” means to them, makes it likely that even the most well-meaning messages will miss their marks. It may seem obvious, but many brands are missing the point that relevance starts with understanding consumers on deeper psychological and behavioral levels like their drivers, fears and needs.
Armed with this knowledge, brands can go beyond pithy and worn-out communications to deliver actions that truly resonate, which positively impact customers and are in line with the brand’s broader business promises. This is what we call value-based innovation.
What good ideas look like now
As we enter the final throes of 2022 and economies worldwide continue to worsen, people are growing more afraid of the future. They’re not looking to the brands they use for sympathy; they need meaningful action.
There are some signs that companies are finally starting to get it. For example, skin care brand Deciem demonstrated a consumer-focused approach when increasing its prices. It explained the hikes were needed to ensure the business remained sustainable, and gave two weeks’ notice before the changes were implemented to allow consumers to stock up.
Similarly, to get a better understanding of their customers’ current mindset, British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s learned that some consumers fear the potential embarrassment of not having enough funds to pay for their groceries. In response, the retailer launched its SmartShop app, which provides a running update on customers’ spending as they shop to help them avoid checkout shock and give them a sense of control.
See you on the other side
Some businesses will wonder how or why they should balance costly meaningful actions with shareholder value. But studies have shown that, historically, in times of uncertainty, companies that invest in building consumer trust and brand equity bounce back far faster than those that don’t.
Ultimately, when the current financial crisis resolves itself, the brands that invest in providing meaningful value to consumers now will be better set for growth in the future. Those that don’t will be remembered, too—but for very different reasons.