What’s going on inside the heads of consumers right now?

Discussion
Photo: @cookienanster via Twenty20
Apr 02, 2020
Barbara Thau

The following is a summary of an article published with the permission of CO—, a publication of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Tone-deaf marketing messages that fail to read the room — like a wool-themed fashion email blast hitting inboxes during a September heat wave — will fall flat no matter the socio-economic climate.

During a global health and financial-solvency crisis like COVID-19, however, they will sound like nails on a chalkboard to consumers, threatening to imperil a company’s brand equity long after the dark days have passed.

While the coronavirus and a world placed on a pandemic-imposed pause feels unprecedented in its direness and global impact, the consumer mindset during times of great crisis tends to follow a pattern, Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author, who’s counted brands from GE and Del Monte to Westfield malls among her clients, told CO—. “Everybody is going through the [buying] decision-making process with another layer of emotionality,” she said. So, “they’re more irrational than ever before.”

To meet consumers in the current moment, retailers and brands from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies face the tricky-yet-necessary task of being of service without being self-serving; replacing pure selling with meaningful, other-oriented storytelling; and rather than touting their generosity of spirit, demonstrating it, Dr. Yarrow said.

What’s more, businesses that recognize that connectedness is “a human imperative” and adapt accordingly, will strike a more resonant chord with consumers and stoke their loyalty long term, she said.

In the grips of this crisis, a shift appears to be occurring in the consumers’ collective psyche, Dr. Yarrow said. They’re pivoting away from worshiping false gods.

“We have a big, huge shift away from [exalting] phony actors and authorities, and towards those around us — the truck drivers, teachers, nurses, employees showing up to work,” she said “Suddenly, our interest [has shifted] from what these superficial big shots are doing to the people around us making our lives and businesses [better].”

Now is the time for companies to champion their employee heroes, she said, and an easy way to do so is to spotlight and celebrate workers on social media. “Here’s Bob delivering your groceries, here’s Nancy in pediatrics working in the hospital — she’s showing up for us … while the rest of us are quarantining ourselves,” she said.

Sam’s Club is doing that with a new commercial showing employees stocking shelves, disinfecting cart handles and loading orders into cars while calling out workers by name and store location to thank them as “The Weight” by The Band plays on.

“They are our frontline army,” Dr. Yarrow said. “They are our heroes.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think is going on in the minds of consumers right now? What does that mean for how retailers communicate with consumers through various media and in person?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"What’s going on in the minds of consumers? Staying alive. Simple as that."
"We (we’re all consumers, right…) have reverted to the baseline of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological (health, food/water) and safety. Nothing else really matters..."
"Companies (and big ones) constantly make mistakes and society does get more empathetic but at the end of the day, we forgive and forget."

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42 Comments on "What’s going on inside the heads of consumers right now?"


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Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
1 year 12 days ago

Consumers are fearful. Nearly 7 million filed for unemployment, and many millions more are just waiting for the inevitable. COBRA payments, mortgages, car payments are kicking in. For those that are not living month-to-month, fear is gripping them that they will be there soon.

When brands are making heroes of their frontline workers, they are showing empathy, authenticity and relatability. Those are winning attributes any time, but even more so at this time of crisis.

Barbara Thau
Guest

Precisely what Sam’s Club is trying to do, Suresh, with its “thank you” campaign. Thanks for your feedback on my story.

Art Suriano
Guest
I think the one word that best describes how consumers are feeling is: uncertainty. When will I go back to work? Will I have a job next month? Of course, many have already been furloughed. Will I get the virus? What happens if I do? And the questions continue and continue. There is more of a need to find toilet paper than taking advantage of Macy’s 40 percent to 70 percent off sale. Because of this mindset, it makes any business attempting to survive significantly challenged with how to make a consumer interested in what they are selling. Regular ads just don’t work. I am amazed that with all the electronic ads I have seen, not one company is using the coronavirus in their marketing. People are stuck at home and many of them are bored, but they all have the virus on their minds. Perhaps some ads that acknowledge what is going on and deal with the uncertainty of the day, tied into the offer, might be more effective. There is no right and… Read more »
Barbara Thau
Guest

“There is more of a need to find toilet paper than taking advantage of Macy’s 40 percent to 70 percent off sale” — yes! evidenced by the stampede of grocery stores (and that they’re open). Your insight calls to mind Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. Thanks for reading the story!

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Consumers are of two minds depending on their own status during the crisis. If they have jobs, are able to work from home and feel relatively secure, they are probably better able to maintain some normal consumption behaviors even if they are limited to ordering online or curbside pickup. Many of the marketing messages on TV are aimed at this audience — most of all from car makers who are still trying to move product with a “we care” theme.

But the vast numbers of unemployed and underemployed (including over 6 million new jobless claims reported today) are living in a completely different reality — assuming they are able to take care of their own health, they are probably less interested in searching for the last 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on Amazon. It’s hard to think of a marketing message that feels right for that audience, but “saluting the unsung heroes” (like Sam’s Club) probably works best.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Excellent points Dick. The unemployment rate is the key to consumer demand. At over 6.6 millon jobless claims today (stacked on 3.2 millon from last week), these numbers have passed “epic” and are moving to “biblical” territory — and it’s not over yet.

People won’t spend on anything but essentials if they got laid off, furloughed or fear that they might be in the future — and that includes almost everyone.

Barbara Thau
Guest

Mark, wow,
Your comments puts the pandemic’s impact in appropriately-dramatic perspective. If we think the Great Recession changed buying habits, what’s in store once this has passed? Thanks for reading my story.

Scott Norris
Guest

Messages like Sam’s Club’s are also recruiting signals for those needing employment; subtle to be sure but businesses who show honor to their frontline staff are going to have a leg up.

Barbara Thau
Guest

Thanks, Dick, for the rich insight and feedback on my story. Your comments are a reminder of the pandemic’s profoundly different impacts on “knowledge” workers and frontline workers.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust
Tone-deaf marketing and failing to read the room. Oh, boy. Where to start? Yesterday I received an email from a company pushing something for the fifth time – you know the marketing model I’m talking about. The subject line read, “Time is running out.” It took my breath away, thinking in the midst of a crisis where people are dying someone thought that was a good idea. Consumers are fragile right now and how we connect with them will determine what happens when the pandemic has passed. Gentle marketing with a message that you are here to serve is important. 50 percent OFF doesn’t mean much when people are conserving cash. Those messages are still coming daily from big retailers who are desperate to unload merchandise, but I am seeing small businesses reaching out with softer, more personal messages: Here’s who we are, where we are now, and how we can make your life a little easier right now. Some are banding together to offer goods in tandem. It’s admirable, really. Maybe customers will buy,… Read more »
Barbara Thau
Guest

Georganne, your comment precisely echoes what the consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow told me for this story: “Fifty percent OFF doesn’t mean much when people are conserving cash.” She described a trio of buying states during widespread crises, one of which is “frozen buying,” whereby consumers are too financially frightened to buy anything. Thanks for reading and your insight.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

This is similar to the price of gas being so low, less than $2.00/gallon here in South Florida. But what difference does it make under these circumstances? We can’t go out for a drive.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Consumers are most likely bothered by their future finances. There does not appear to be a shortage of food and necessities, but there may well be a shortage of money with which to buy them.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust
We are all consumers and we are all in the same state of mind with the ongoing pandemic, and all the uncertainties regarding the future and a return to normality. In addition to all the anxieties and the unknowns about the COVID-19 virus, nearly 7 million people have applied for unemployment. While there are those lucky professionals who can work remotely, countless millions have been furloughed or run small businesses that can no longer remain open. The majority of consumers are in quarantine-like states for the foreseeable future and are focused on essential survival needs, including food, pharmaceutical products, and their health. Taking all of that into consideration, retailers and brands are also facing their own challenges with strained supply chains, and the rules of the game being re-written with social distancing in stores. There is a delicate balance companies have to take on: ensuring their consumers are taken care of in their time of need, but also taking every precaution to protect their employees who are on the front line. Empathy, understanding, and compassion… Read more »
Barbara Thau
Guest

Indeed, Brandon, you raise the million-dollar question: What will the new normal look like? Thanks for reading.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I believe people are fearing the unknown. Nothing is set in stone and everything is in flux as the rate of infection keeps changing. People are out of work or furloughed and no one has any idea if or when their employers will reopen for business. Many of the people are setting priorities — what bill do I pay first? Do I have food to feed my family? There has to be a sense that America will bounce back – we have before and we will again.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

It’s interesting that the article mentions two things that sound at odds with one another. That people are more irrational than ever, and that they are turning away from false gods. But both are certainly understandable. For me, I’m just glad to see some light shone on people who we have heretofore taken for granted — the frontline workers in retail and healthcare who make it all happen every day. Maybe this helps us get a little more realistic about appropriate minimum wage guidelines. Maybe it helps us understand the pitfalls of employer-based health insurance. Maybe it helps us see the real thinking and agenda and priorities of retail executives and elected officials at every level — from honesty, clarity and generosity to utter buffoonery. As of this morning, there are 10 million workers who are desperately hoping for honesty, clarity, and generosity. Now is the time to serve, not sell.

Barbara Thau
Guest

To your point, Jeff, brands and companies that echo their core consumers’ values, such as treating their employees fairly, for one, tend to benefit from those practices performance-wise, studies show. Thanks for reading my story and your feedback.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

What’s going on in the minds of consumers? Staying alive. Simple as that.

If 100,000 – 200,000 are going to die, what consumers are thinking about is “How do I keep from being one of them?”

How do you communicate with consumers? Same as it has been since this started. If you’re in the food industry, demonstrate that you care for the health and safety of your employees and customers. If you’re in any other retail vertical, find SOMETHING that brings good Karma to do. Many clothing retailers have started making masks. Think about craft giveaways for beleaguered parents suddenly with their kids 24/7.

Now is the time to build goodwill.