By Clayton Southerly, Alter Agents
The landscape is changing for shoppers. Heading into year three of the pandemic in the U.S., the Omicron wave of cases is falling about as rapidly as it began and many people now have someone in their lives who has recovered from the virus. Statewide mask mandates are ending and most kids are back in school and adults back in offices.
People very much want to move on.
But we can’t do that quite yet. The number of deaths per day from COVID-19 in the U.S. is still elevated and that means that a lot of people are losing family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors.
People are out sick from work, leaving heavier workloads on their colleagues and perpetuating ongoing issues with the supply chain, making it harder to fulfill orders and stock store shelves. And inflation persists, largely clawing back the wage gains of even the best-rewarded workers.
What we have here is a state of shopper uncertainty. There’s a sense that things aren’t as bad as they were before but they’re definitely not all better. And the sky isn’t cloudless ahead either.
In our Facing Fear research series that concluded in 2021, we examined the roots of consumer anxiety and how the pandemic and economic conditions were combining to push shoppers to think and behave how they have. Economist and professor Peter Atwater put it to us like this: people inherently dislike uncertainty, so they’ll take action to try to regain certainty and control over aspects of their lives or at least the illusion of it.
They will do things like buy a house in the suburbs because they felt too close to too many people in the city and they wanted to avoid getting sick. Or they’ll say that the economy is doing poorly and worry over inflation but go out and notch a record-breaking holiday spending season to make Christmas feel “more normal.”
They’re shopping, which is good news after a rough economic period. But they are doing it from a mental state that pushes them to be quick to scrutinize claims and be wary of promises.
Because it’s not the actual item on the shelf that they want — it’s a sense of certainty and control that they hope having this item will provide. It’s the illusion of safety that is a yard between you and your neighbor or a child happily playing with new toys on a cozy December morning.
Certainty, control, comfort, confidence — these are the feelings shoppers need to be secure in the product or brand they’ve decided to purchase. So we, as marketers, have work to do.
Marketers and advertisers have an opportunity to really meet shoppers where they are in this moment. Not just in the sense of reaching target audiences on the right channels but in speaking in a shopper’s language and addressing their lived experiences.
- Honesty Protects You From Scrutiny – We know that consumers are more likely to scrutinize products and companies when they face high levels of uncertainty in their lives. In moments like this, it’s far safer, to be honest with people instead of incessantly burying flaws in a transparent spin. Our Shopper Influence Research found that 76% of people want to be as informed as possible when making a purchase. When the shopper knows exactly what they’re going to get with a purchase and then sees it deliver, their experience is one they’ll be tempted to repeat.
- Authenticity Remains King – Similarly, consumers crave authenticity. Honesty is a component here but so are tone, medium and timing. If people feel as though they know you and your voice, they are more likely to trust your brand. They will feel more certain that they know who they’re buying from.
- Solidarity Establishes a Bond – Positioning your brand as having been in the struggle of the past two years along with shoppers helps build solidarity and establish a bond. Humanize the brand with stories about the people behind it and demonstrate how their team has helped shepherd everyone through a difficult period.
- Coping With Joy & Hope – Look for moments of celebration and use them to spread joy and hope. As we move into a new stage of the pandemic, shoppers will want to open up and celebrate something. Give them what they need!
This period has been hard for shoppers. While we’re nearly out of the woods, variants lurk and nobody knows what we’ll need to do to respond or how much stomach people have for more of the fight. It’s important to keep your brand and its marketing adaptable over the next few months to match what could be see-sawing sentiment. Shoppers will appreciate it.
About the Author
Clayton Southerly is the Marketing Communications Manager at Alter Agents, a strategic market research consultancy based in Los Angeles. He works with a team of super-smart researchers to translate data into actionable recommendations, build products and get executives excited about insights that help them reach their target audiences.
Prior to his time in the market research industry, Clayton did a stint in marketing, product development and media analysis at Bulletin Intelligence, designing and delivering information products for the White House and Fortune 500 brands.
When he’s not building comms strategy and creating content, Clayton enjoys sitting on the beach, cooking and traveling.