Posts tagged "COVID-19"

Pandemic influences consumer behavior

Pandemic and cultural shift combine for rapid change smackdown

October 6th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, brand strategy, branded content, Consumer insight, Content Marketing, COVID-19, Emotional relevance, engagement, food retail strategy, Healthy lifestyle, Healthy Living, Higher Purpose, Marketing Strategy, Pandemic 0 comments on “Pandemic and cultural shift combine for rapid change smackdown”

We unpack handwriting on the (relevant marketing) wall

If you’re like me, you’re probably exclaiming, “so now what?” Another day and another revelation of upheaval in an era of unpredictable, unsettling events that cause you to sleep with one eye open.

In an exceptional moment of corporate disclosure, Amazon announced that nearly 20,000 of their employees tested positive for Coronavirus just hours before the President and First Lady were diagnosed with the virus. No doubt the pandemic has reached into the lives of virtually everyone with unprecedented and transformational impacts that continue to reshape the way people think, shop and live.

Within the last few days major furloughs and layoffs have been announced simultaneously by a string of companies including Disney, Allstate, major airlines and others as business shortfalls consume cash reserves leading to headcount reductions.

  • Emergent has followed these developments closely. We are examining these events to translate them for useful guidance on what food, beverage and lifestyle brands should consider in business planning and how these issues impact marketing strategy.

Here we will unpack the most significant conditions. Focusing on what informs the immediate future for companies grappling with uncertainty via new revelations surrounding the economy, the disease, climate challenges and cultural disruption – all of which are inter-related.

The end of stimulus and the start of fiscal free-fall

In June media attention shifted to the looming end of Federal stimulus programs. Millions of people who were fortunate enough to qualify for meager state unemployment benefits, saw a life-preserving $600 a week added to their stipend payments. This action temporarily closed the financial gap for families who otherwise would be facing a cliff of cash shortages. That cliff has now arrived, impacting their ability to pay the bills, especially housing and food.

It is unclear if new stimulus support will return anytime soon due to the impasse between Congress and the Senate over the size and components of a national economic support package. Even with House passage of a $2.2 trillion measure, it’s unlikely it will go any further before the election, as both sides draw hard lines in the budget sand.

Thus, the income disparity between wealthier and middle-class families is widening and becoming more obvious (visible to all). Those less impacted by the recession continue to accumulate cash due to slowdowns in spending for commuting, business or vacation travel and discretionary activity in restaurant dining, sports and entertainment. Those directly affected by the economy slowdown experience layoffs, salary or hour reductions and wholesale permanent disintermediation of their jobs, while trying to manage life with quickly dwindling cash reserves.

Middle class spending is an engine that drives the U.S. economy so what’s happening here over time has domino impacts everywhere. It is in everyone’s best interests if stimulus support is turned on, and concerted efforts made to restore jobs or create new ones.

The number one impact of all of the above: stress and anxiety

Whether it’s class polarization, economic and employment uncertainty, concerns over social justice and all-too-apparent climate eruptions, plus a surging virus – all combine with the absence of control over one’s life and surroundings to manifest in a form of anxiousness. It is showing up everywhere in what people eat.

Legacy packaged food brand resurgence is evidence of filling a need for:

  • Comfort
  • Familiarity
  • Satisfying stress eating behaviors by reaching for higher fat and carb foods that somehow make people feel better. Apparently, a bag of chips is self-medicating. However, 27% of American adults are also reporting 5 or more pounds of weight gain since March – a troubling development especially as a good portion of the country experiences declining seasonal temperatures and more inactive time spent indoors.

As a sort of ‘flip side’ of this culinary coin, stress eating behaviors leading to high fat and carb foods, has its own polar opposite: the growing search for low sugar foods in an effort to exert more control over health and wellness at a time when investments in immune system integrity are a top priority for many people.

On the retail side, we’re witnessing a related swell in transactions and channel migration to hard discount. Not a surprise under these conditions. Again, we see the presence of an alter ego for stores in higher income zip codes. These retailers may see increasing opportunities for trial and volume growth of premium indulgent food and beverages. It’s just ‘nuts’ if you get my meaning.

Work-From-Home (WFM) not going anywhere

As we pour through reports on the status of WFM, we conclude this phenomenon isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Now breakfast and lunch are prepared and consumed at home, adding to the need for guidance, kitchen counter coaching and convenient solutions. In many places the kids remain home for school as well, adding to the pressures in meal preparation. Can you help with emotional support, menu guidance and prep ideas?

Meal kits took a beating pre-COVID due mainly to cost and complexity. Now kits are returning as a viable way to vary menus and fulfill consumer interest in sophisticated (global) flavors and restless palate syndrome borne of at-home cooking boredom. Grocery retailers have an opportunity here to showcase kits in varying degrees of ‘do-it-for-you’ to meet the interests of the scratch cookers and those who are simply exhausted with all the constant chopping and slicing.

The Wheatley kitchen is a veritable round robin of cutting boards, knives, saute’ pans, bowls and leftover containers as two teenage daughters exert control over their food preferences, while the parents handle another portion of the chores. It’s an unending cycle of cooking and cleaning. I’ve not seen teenagers with such accomplished knife skills and baking expertise except on Chopped Kids.  

  • Snacking is now a 24/7 activity. The room for brands to play here is nearly infinite. The refueling is almost non-stop, some of it functional and some indulgent.

The opportunities for brands and retailers to become a partner with people in the kitchen has never been higher, yet so few are stepping-up to the plate. Perplexing.

E-commerce crazy

Time is all we have. How we spend it is all that matters. Why will e-commerce become such a dominant channel? Because it is built to give back time. The pandemic closes the door on casual browsing and spending extra quality time in brick and mortar retail. Shopping trips are fewer and purposeful, aimed at minimizing viral exposure.

Meantime the seamless digital shopping platforms people encounter are getting better and better. We’re now at a $70 billion run rate in e-commerce transactions. Experts in the field believe once you pass 50% of typical transactions in food or lifestyle, the tipping point may very well have been reached. Not there yet, but the leaps in digital purchasing this year are significant.

At this stage, as good online experiences and comfort level take over, people begin to appreciate the time they’ve been given back by avoiding the hassle of driving to and running the cart through stores.

That doesn’t mean retail disappears, far from it! It does mean that shopping experience and environment must be on a whole other level to romance and engage people in a sought-after and magnetic reason to be inside your doors. Disney does magic well, so should you.

Shopping for what?

According to IRI data through mid-August, the top five categories in retail sales volume are:

  1. Health care products
  2. Frozen meat/poultry/seafood
  3. Personal cleansing
  4. Other refrigerated
  5. Baking

Within the top 25 categories in sales growth, frozen and refrigerated holds 14 of them. Evidence that consumers care about preserving shelf life and guarding against food waste and scarcity, while the baking binge is no fluke. It is an effort to bring control back during an era when there is a predominant feeling of none.

Strategic direction: identify passionate cohorts, apply hyper relevance

If you can step back and see your marketing and communications strategies remains widely targeted at virtually every human on earth, now is the time to prune. The need for mattering has never been greater. Achieving that enviable position isn’t easy and requires significant focus and discipline.

Step One –

Identify the most committed and passionate consumers of your product or shopper groups in your stores. What do they care about, how do they live, what are the pain points they need to solve? Your goal is to become a refined and optimal solution to their problem. To get there you need to lean hard on the strategic thinkers and those with insight to consumer behaviors on your team. This is true customer-centric planning.

Step Two –

The goal of your marketing is hyper relevance to these consumers, to the point where they see a mirror of themselves in how the brand communicates and behaves. Your values and theirs become one. You step fully into higher purpose and deeper meaning with this cohort (there may be cohorts). Whatever end of the economic spectrum, you lean in to where they live and how they feel. You’re looking for common ground and ways to be of help. Your value proposition isn’t just the product or store. It’s how you tangibly work to improve their lives.

Step Three –

Your communications and content creation should be packed with advice, guidance and counsel. You walk away from the temptation to self-promote and instead focus on them and their stories. You enable social proof mechanisms and encourage people to share experiences because you know it’s credible proof of what you want them to believe. Your storytelling expands to address the higher purpose you’ve adopted and how you are helping improve the world around us. You now know it matters to consumers who expect this of you.

We understand that people are now literally consuming their identity. What they buy is a flag and mirror of their values, beliefs and what they hold to be important. Symbolism can be everywhere in every place that consumers encounter your brand and business. Are you deploying the markers and images they will recognize of lifestyle relevance?

The horizon: climate change

Looking ahead, what’s coming is a move to connect food and beverage choices with carbon footprint and impacts on climate change through contributing to the growth of greenhouse gases. There is genuine fear among people that food production is irrevocably linked to creating damage to the climate, leading to super storms, droughts and wildfires.

This issue is going to climb in visibility and importance. Brands have an opportunity to get in front of this concern and be part of the dialogue. The roots of this will inevitably go back to supply chain decisions and how foods are farmed or raised. To that end regenerative agriculture is going to rise as a priority and people will be looking for these practices to show up in an industrialized agribusiness that isn’t operating with these principles in mind.

The great promise of this type of farming is reversal of eroding soil conditions and processes that could help farmland become the world’s largest carbon sink. This is a horizon issue now but is rapidly building momentum.

Worth paying attention to.

As you consider the path forward, if expert guidance would be beneficial in your planning use this link to open a conversation. We would be delighted to help. Emergent’s mission is to marry marketing expertise with our belief in the rising importance and value of healthy lifestyle to the future success of relevant food and beverage brands and retailers.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Pandemic unleashes cultural changes

Context is Your Marketing Super Power

June 28th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, consumer behavior, Consumer insight, Emotional relevance, Healthy lifestyle, Healthy Living, Higher Purpose, Human behavior, Navigation, Social community 0 comments on “Context is Your Marketing Super Power”

How are you deploying it?

The incredible disruption spawned by the global pandemic is creating an important opportunity to reframe the marketing conversation around your brand. During difficult times people are more receptive to brands making bolder moves. Uncertainty provides the latitude to experiment, in the context of answering cultural changes that are having a profound impact on how people view the world around them and what they care about in times of change.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Cultural shifts create influential moments when consumers are open to new ideas. Behavior change, which is hard to accomplish, becomes more attainable. What we know about people is the role that perceived risk has in their decisions. When a change is adopted by many, it can quickly become the default choice for the very reason human beings are a copying species. Popularity provides reassurance.

Permission operates in the same way. Witness what is happening now with work at home. Companies, especially in the tech sector, are making this a permanent adaptation and by virtue of doing so signaling a new acceptable default for how business will operate. If it were merely served up as an optional choice (as it has been for years!) the adoption curve falls immediately because of the perceived risks of not being in the office and any stigma that might accompany that perception. Companies that offer unlimited vacation see the same outcome as people don’t suddenly leave for extended periods for the same reasons – fear their career will be compromised and so the “choice” isn’t activated. Averting negative experiences is a highly motivating and universally common behavioral trait among consumers.

Human beings are hard-wired to avoid personal risk

The over-arching impact of COVID-19 on the value proposition of health and wellness moves the interest in healthy lifestyle from aspirational to practical to necessity. As we’ve said previously, Health is the New Wealth, essentially means there are life-maintaining, risk-mitigating reasons to shore up the immune system. This is having an impact on food and beverage brand growth in the coming year. The default for health and wellness has now changed – it’s visceral and existential. This also helps sponsor an emotionally charged marketing environment.

It’s important to note that humans are not governed by algorithms. We do not make decisions based on rational thus predictable assessments of facts. If we did, 1 + 1 = 2 could be applied to marketing activity with assured outcomes. Instead – we are feeling creatures who think and not thinking creatures who feel. Yet for some reason right alongside the birth of digital marketing platforms and the ability to amass data, we have become too preoccupied with marketing plumbing at the expense of paying closer attention to the (human behavior) water inside.

Psychological insights are simply more powerful and unilaterally effective than any form of technological or engineering advantage in products and service marketing. Said another way, a terrific well-designed product with subpar marketing behind it can fail – while a lesser product with better and more humanly relevant marketing strategies in support will win the race. How can this be? …Because now we can create high levels of satisfaction by knowing what truly ”floats the consumer’s boat,” more so than any advantage created by a less emotionally-compelling ingredient innovation or product feature.

Marketing is not a form of cosmetic surgery to apply a thin layer of magic fairy dust on the top of a product that succeeds on its own merits just because it is well crafted. Dyson vacuum was renowned as an engineering marvel, yet its suction power wasn’t really the big leap forward over other conventional models. Its sexy design created perceptions of new and modern (visual cue), while the ability to actually see dirt in a clear cup provided enormous levels of personal accomplishment and emotional satisfaction to people who could observe the outcome of their floor-cleaning efforts for the first time. The marketing behind Dyson was masterful in elevating the value of having one in the house as a symbol of being progressive and innovative while embracing the fashion of an edgy, differentiated design.

The most important move to make on the successful marketing path is….

Our job (and yours) is to identify the single most powerful motivation driving customer behavior in a client’s category. Armed with this understanding we place the consumer at the center of planning, working to apply our understanding of context, perceptions and emotions that are tied to their behaviors. We translate that insight into more effective communication.

Everyday people show their peculiarities, whims and irrational behaviors, wishes and fears. Armed with this knowledge we’re able to blaze new trails for brands that want to and can be more relevant to consumer needs. This happens because the brand’s deeper meaning and values now operate in sync with what people believe and care about.

In this unprecedented marketing environment, here are some questions to consider:

  • How can your brand contribute to the cultural conversation going on right now?
  • What are your users’ shifting attitudes about themselves?
  • What higher purpose can your brand fulfill that matches the beliefs consumers value the most?
  • With health and wellness now more important than ever to people, how does this play out in your strategic plan?

You have permission now to experiment outside the rational comfort zone, offering new reasons-to-believe that are tied to deeper meaning and values that transcend the product itself. A small example of the human emotional condition at work here: why is it that consumers perceive a car drives and performs better when it is clean? Not really rational is it!

We work to change the way people see your brand

Our role as creative communicators is to pay attention to the consumer who buys our clients’ product or service. Perception often leads reality and our job is to manage those perceptions, knowing that the reality is never far away in a digital world where anything that can be known, will be known.

The four horsemen of an effective strategic marketing plan are:

  • Context (in which it is consumed)
  • Environment (in which it is sold)
  • Cultural setting (that drives surrounding beliefs)
  • Who says it (the voice employed to build trust)

Harkening back to our earlier point about risk aversion and disaster avoidance, trust might be the most important consideration to directly address in the strategic plan. Trust drives purchase behavior. It can also disappear quickly if not managed with great care.

This explains why social media is such an important channel to deploy strategically. For the very reason the voices involved are consumers and not the company. People believe other people long before they’ll accept what a business claims about its product. Social proof serves as verification and validation of what you want people to understand and accept about your brand.

In a tough marketing environment, trusted brands will succeed and it doesn’t happen organically. Trust is acquired and earned over time. This is perhaps the most powerful argument for investing in brand building. Consumers trust those they know and believe. They also trust the wisdom of crowds and translate socially accepted choice as ‘vetted and approved’.

Now is the time to step beyond your comfort zone and consider bolder moves. If logic were the only defining path-to-purchase then every brand in a category would be on equal footing. However, that isn’t the case because logic doesn’t respect what we know about people and how they behave.

Your super power is the ability to embed context and relevance in brand communication. Emergent can help you navigate and design more engaging brand outreach and active social communities. Let us know if you’re interested in finding a fresh perspective.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

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