The rise of staunch individualism and what it means for brand communications with women in today’s world
By Kathryn Spitzberg Johnson, Big Squirrel
Lingering uncertainty is really all we can be sure about these days. This uncertainty combined with cyclical waves of the pandemic, mounting political and civil tensions and the mundane, day-to-day challenges in our personal lives has created a new mindset for women about how we live today. For brands with women as a key audience, it is important to dig deeply into this mindset to truly understand how to best serve and communicate with women.
A Look at Pre-Pandemic Living
Though life has never been simple for women, our past and current research at Big Squirrel shows just how much more complicated women’s lives have become since the enormous disruption caused by the emergence of COVID in 2020. Before the pandemic began, there was already a particular amount of chaotic busy-ness in women’s lives. Faced with an overload of choices and multiple responsibilities, many women were left feeling depleted and stressed out trying to juggle long commutes, overscheduled kids, work, home life and self-care.
The antidote to this type of pre-pandemic stress was to make life easier – to declutter and manage time more efficiently. Marie Kondo emerged as a tidying-up, joy-sparking hero and Real Simple shared the best apps to help us work smarter, not harder. If you couldn’t tidy-up, you could escape for a few hours by tuning into Game of Thrones which broke viewership records or The Avengers: Endgame which became the second highest grossing film of all time.
The desire to make life easier was a concrete concept that brands and products could grasp and cater to in tangible ways. They could easily communicate with women and firmly understood what this audience was seeking. Yet, life has been disrupted, desires have shifted and a pivot is in order.
When Everything Changed
Suddenly in March of 2020, we were forced to pause the frenetic pace of life. It was a scary time and we had no choice but to give up the things that kept us running (and running around!). Self-care immediately went out the window for most women and we were left to juggle childcare, home school, meal prepping and work all while providing physical and emotional support to children, pets, partners, extended family and even co-workers. Taking care of our families trumped taking care of ourselves. One woman we interviewed in a qualitative study about how women experienced the pandemic put it this way:
“I felt guilty if I was taking time for myself. If I was doing something that was just for me and not for my family, it felt like I was being overly selfish.”
Self-care and greater support systems fell away as we created smaller bubbles to protect ourselves and our loved ones. This started the ball rolling on a drastic change in the way women interact with many parts of life, including the brands they engage with, the way they shop and the products and services they purchase.
The Rise of Staunch Individualism
On a larger scale, the pandemic triggered mass amounts of uncertainty which brewed fear and mistrust. This fear degraded our sense of a greater good and the “collective conscience” – the shared values and beliefs that helped govern life as we knew it. Though the pandemic was a globally shared experience, it became a catalyst for the widespread development of an “every person for themselves” mentality. At Big Squirrel, we refer to this as “the rise of staunch individualism”.
Culturally this staunch individualism has manifested in a myriad of ways. One of the greatest portrayals of this mentality is in the South Korean drama Squid Game in which contestants are only out for themselves as they compete in a series of children’s games (with deadly consequences) to win prize money. The series became Netflix’s number one show of all time demonstrating our collective interest in the dogged pursuits of the individual.
Staunch individualism also came heavily into play over the last two years when making decisions and drawing boundaries concerning our beliefs, our bodies and our jobs. The Great Resignation took hold with 11.5 million people choosing to look out for themselves by quitting their jobs in May, June and July of 2021. To wear or not wear masks, to get vaxxed or not to get vaxxed – all became decisions driven by staunch individualism, despite any negative effects these decisions may have had on society at large.
For some women, staunch individualism has taken a powerful form enabling them to gain or regain a sense of personal strength. Enduring the pandemic has been a tremendous source of hardship but also fortitude.
“During the pandemic, I learned that I can do really hard things. I was a little surprised by this,” said a female qualitative research respondent in our recent study.
With a renewed sense of power, we see women standing up for who they are, what they believe and what they want out of their lives. The rise of staunch individualism in the form of a new sense of personal strength may have long-reaching effects on how we live our lives well into the future.
Understanding this shift in mindset is going to be key for brands to succeed in this “new normal.” When products and services communicate their value through their claims and marketing, understanding what women believe at the individual level and what they are looking for to reaffirm their beliefs will impact success in the marketplace.
Living Easier to Living Better
Before the disruption of the pandemic, our research showed that for women, making life easier was the name of the game. Time management tips and organizational techniques were hot commodities. Today, this is no longer enough. The restrictions of the pandemic and the rise in staunch individualism has led to a desire to not only live easier but to live BETTER.
Living easier meant trying to find a way to manage the hecticness of life. For women today, living better means prioritizing what is really important. It means leveraging staunch individualism and a newfound power to say “no” to the people and activities that don’t serve us and that don’t make our lives better.
“I have found that I just don’t have patience to put up with the stuff I used to do. I am no longer interested in bowing to pressures at work,” said a research participant about living better in today’s world.
Our research also showed that since the pandemic started, women are more willing to say “no” and are more accepting of hearing “no” from friends and family.
One research participant explained how she says “no” more readily and unapologetically now than before the pandemic began:
“Now I just say ‘no’ and don’t even give an excuse. I don’t feel the need to anymore. I feel like people show more grace now than they used to. Not that they didn’t have grace before but I think now people understand you have to do what’s best for you.”
Resources for how to say “no” have flooded the internet and it appears as if saying “no” has become more culturally accepted.
What It All Means for Brands and Businesses
The rise of staunch individualism combined with a newfound power and freedom to say “no” means brands and businesses need to pay close attention to the wants, needs and desires of women or risk being shut out of life in the new normal. It is time to reevaluate what women are looking for — how we think, feel and act — and the factors that help us decide how we want to spend our time and our money. By gaining a deeper understanding of how women make decisions in the new normal, brands and businesses can seize the opportunity and take the necessary action to help women achieve their desire to live better.
About the Author
Kathryn Spitzberg Johnson has an insatiable appetite for identifying cultural insights that shape consumer behavior and attitudes. At Big Squirrel (www.bigsquirrel.com), her passion lies in helping brands navigate cultural currents and behavioral shifts in order to truly connect. Kathryn has worked with a diverse range of clients including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle and many others. Her enthusiasm for discovery drives an obsession with the intersection between business, design, entertainment, art and technology, and their impact on popular culture, brands, and behavior.