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
5 months 16 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.

Barbara Thau
Guest

Hi Paula, and thanks for that feedback. The story and Kit Yarrow, the psychologist I interviewed for this piece, said precisely what you did: “Fostering good will in a crisis will sometimes mean offering something for nothing. Fashion companies from Prada to Eddie Bauer are shifting production to make masks critically needed for medical workers, just as Hertz is renting vehicles sitting idle to healthcare workers for free.”
Thanks for reading and hope you and yours are well.

David Naumann
BrainTrust
Consumers are scared, irrational and conservative. They are scared of the potential impact of the virus on their friends and family and have fears about the security of their jobs. I just heard from a close friend yesterday that his son is in the hospital with coronavirus. This is real and is or will be touching someone we all know. The fear of job loss is real and we are seeing the facts in staggering unemployment numbers that will continue to grow as more companies deal with the harsh realities of the impact on their financials. Toilet paper and hoarding of other grocery items is the irrational side of consumers, as it is a way that people can feel like they are in some sense of control. From the perspective of being financially conservative, consumers that have or expect to lose their jobs are tightening their belts and only spending on essential items. And even those that feel comfortable in their jobs are spending less because they are staying home. Retailers need to customize their… Read more »
Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Fear, uncertainty and a need to “hunker down.” I think any self-serving promotion is going to not only fall on deaf ears, it’s going to irritate short-tempered consumers. I agree that messages celebrating team members who are helping, and pure “informational” spots are best right now.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

The common feeling among consumers right now is fear. Fear for their health and those around them and fear for financial security. But people also want a feeling of normality – or as close as possible to it.

Retailer messages that focus on reducing fear – or at least not increasing it – should be a good starting point. A great example could be their in-store approach (as is the case with U.K. grocers currently advertising on television).

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

On one hand there is a mixture of fearfulness, confusion and even anger (vented at our leaders or those who oppose them). On the other, there continues to be hope and admiration for the frontline players. The responsible thing for brands to do is negate as much as possible the first set of feelings with messages that highlight and promote the second set. Bad news begets bad news. Good news may not instantly beget good news, but it does soften the bad news and can act as a light at the end of the tunnel.

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

Calling this tone-deaf marketing is exactly on point! Is anyone else tired of seeing the same-old, same-old commercials on television and cable every night? Doesn’t matter the industry or retailer. You see people in commercials out-and-about in groups, buying new cars, going to restaurants, etc. The vast marketing business in this country has patted themselves on the back for years hyping their ability to understand the consumer, analyze huge amounts of data and be nimble to react to consumer and retail changes. Not so much. I applaud any retailer or business that is stepping up with the right messaging at the right time for consumers. Any retailer that provides a positive, “we are all in this together” message will remain in the minds and hearts of consumer over the long-haul.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

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 right now. Retailers need to message to that – period.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Just saw your comment “awaiting moderation” after I hit post on my own, David. Good to see another fan of Maslow, and clearly we agree on where we are right now. But is that what retailers should message to? Or should they remind us that we will climb the hierarchy of needs again soon? I don’t know which is right. I do know which one I’d rather hear myself.

Barbara Thau
Guest

David! I also invoked Maslow above … then I saw your comment. Your call to retailers is compelling: “Nothing else really matters right now. Retailers need to message to that – period.” Thanks for reading my story and your insights.

Kathleen Fischer
BrainTrust

Consumers are afraid – afraid for their health, their family, their jobs, even the world as we know it. It is critical to remember that as retailers are delivering messages to customers. Sam’s Club is taking the right tone by delivering an appropriate message to create and ensure customer loyalty.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

If you can’t say the right thing, please don’t say anything. We are not interested in 70 percent off. We are not interested in 0 percent financing. We are not interested in no payments for 6 months. The narcissistic ideas expressed by some companies tell you all you want to know about those companies. And in the long run, those companies will pay.

On the other side, don’t give me a maudlin message that has nothing to do with your product or store. It is not time for Super Bowl flag waving ads.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

The consumer wants to be assured — assured that things will be OK. We have patience. But we want to know that the advertiser is on our team and has our best interests at the forefront of their actions. My favorite advertiser is a hardware company. Click this link to see how they tell the story of how their customers are as important to their business as anything else (if not more). This is how you make customers comfortable, loyal fans. I don’t see a lot of this from our retailers in town. It doesn’t have to be a huge video, Just a run of a press ad with the right words.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

I think it is easy to judge anyone right now. I walked into the dry cleaners yesterday and a woman instinctively jumped back eight feet and covered her face. Wow. The same can be happening against anyone selling anything right now. I have clients who are making sales while their stores are closed to browsing. They are saying now could be a perfect time, why wait, etc. I’m sure many will find those retailers “tone-deaf” but make no mistake, there will be no “good time” to market yourself. We’re not going to get an “all-clear” – and your competitors may have just found a way to steal market share. There are no easy answers but I encourage all retailers to not go dark or lean on discounts – be of service first. And if there is something you have that they could want, don’t feel guilty.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust
The one emotion I haven’t seen mentioned is hope. That’s in no way a criticism of the comments — I think they accurately reflect what consumers are thinking, which is the same things most of us are thinking. In times like this we are all simply human, and it is amazing how quickly we retreat to the basic needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy. But what consumers want to hear, what we all want to hear, is hope. Not cheerleading — we don’t need to have things sugarcoated or glossed over. But we do need to focus on the end game. We need to hear more about how we are going to come out of this on the other side. Predictions of how many people will return to work withing the first month after the pandemic instead of so much focus on how many lost their jobs this week. All the reporters need to put “if it bleeds, it ledes” back in the closet, at least until November. We need to see more of Garth and Trisha… Read more »
Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

If my essential grocery trips are any indication, there’s a lot more fear in the eyes of consumers. People are scared, they’re aware of the ravages of COVID-19, they don’t want to become a statistic, and are questioning the trust they have placed in many institutions. The future is uncertain with an alarming sense of helplessness and a loss of control. Losing one’s job just adds to that sense of dread especially given the uncertain duration of the epidemic and unknown timeline for a return to some financial and social normality.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Unprecedented ambiguity has led to soaring consumer anxiety.

Within a month, we’ve slid down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to “first things first”: our basic physiological and security needs. Our energy is focused on taking care of ourselves as we also worry about loved ones who aren’t under the same roof.

The most effective communications focus on factors within retail companies’ control, including:

  • Empathy: Show they genuinely care about consumers and associates;
  • Security: Prove they’re taking steps to keep people safe in stores and along the supply chain;
  • Generosity: Change how they do business by improving workers’ conditions.

To comfort fearful consumers, companies need to embrace humane business practices.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

My first thought reading the question was, are you kidding? Certainly the thoughts going through all of our minds if we are honest about it is, will we come through this healthy and will we have a job when the new normal begins?

The world will not be the same as we continue through this period and find out at the end of it — who is open, how many stores did not reopen, do I have a job, what will my new pay be, etc.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Pretty simple: STOP. Gather the family around, make sure you have what it takes to get by for the next few weeks and just STOP buying “stuff.” Ancillary to this is, “why did I buy all this stuff anyway?” We’re already in a new phase of retail/restaurant evolution, but this is going to speed things up tremendously.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

There’s an interesting bifurcation in the minds of consumers right now. Looking at major purchases, cars, Q1 numbers really don’t reflect the severity of the crisis, as makers are down in sales, but for the most part, not that bad. Perhaps 2Q may be more dramatic.

For smaller purchases, discretionary categories, such as apparel — especially in malls — are virtually dead, as most stores are closed. However, we’ll see how the online uptick is holding into 2Q. Food, well, although major grocers showed 30% gains in Q1, the past week softened, so perhaps the hoarding knuckleheads have no more room in their garages.

I think consumers are wary, depending upon their job status. If it’s in question, larger, discretionary purchases are being pushed off. However, you do see those who throw caution to the wind. My neighbor just bought a $35k off-road UTV AFTER he got furloughed. Maybe it IS Armageddon.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Probably the best advice regarding marketing right now is the same one given to people: stay home (i.e. keep those emails and online ads locked up inside your server). As the country reopens — probably slowly, and in layers — companies will need to measure their audiences carefully: even for a given customer base some will have been financially or emotionally traumatized, others will have seen this as a minor nuisance … maybe even an adventure. Running the “same old, same old” message may not work.

Shikha Jain
BrainTrust
Consumers, especially younger ones, are ready to boycott brands and businesses that do not fit with their values. During this time of uncertainty and social distancing, people need empathetic messages to resonate with them. You see a lot of ads for car brands and grocery stores on how their employees are working tirelessly for you. At the end of the day, these businesses want to remain top of mind. Other companies that are harder hit during this time like airlines and hotels are sharing messages about how CEOs are forgoing their salaries in order to avoid layoffs and we praise them. A lot of companies, however, are still laying off their workers and we claim to boycott them. But, what I’ve learned is that we all have incredibly short-term memories. Take the 2008/09 financial crisis which spearheaded the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, senior management at the same banks have some of the highest salaries. Companies (and big ones) constantly make mistakes and society does get more empathetic but at the end of the day,… Read more »
Chuck Palmer
BrainTrust

Being a behaviorist, I am mostly skeptical about the use of Maslow’s work in the realm of marketing. It’s usually misinterpreted at best and bastardized at worst. BUT — in this extreme case it is uniquely applicable. We are in an unprecedented reset that will change behavior. We are being pushed back down the hierarchy — some of us deal with the comfort issues of food and shelter on a regular basis; for some of us it is something that we have never had to engage.

Uncertainty and fear drive us to protect ourselves and our own interests. This is exhibited in panic shopping and hoarding.

We may see an uptick in discretionary spending in the coming weeks, but we won’t see anything close to “normal” any time soon. Consumers will become accustomed to the new reality that just may keep us on those lower levels of the hierarchy for quite some time.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Retail and brand marketers need to realize that if you’re not selling an essential product (be it food, toilet paper, or hand sanitizer, and so on) no one is interested in hearing about how big the percentage discount is you’re offering. No one is interested in the “last-minute deal” that’s about to expire. Once stores started closing, none of these marketing messages carry any meaning to consumers. Even those that feel stable in their job right now have more important thoughts occupying their mind — mostly about survival, possibly about how to keep buying groceries, but certainly not about the next pair of summer shorts they’d like to get or the next car they’re going to drive. So what does that leave? Messages about how those brands are trying to help the world and their shopping communities. If you’re an apparel manufacturer — why are you waiting to convert to making masks, gowns, or other needed healthcare worker materials. That’s just one example. Chances are, if you don’t produce one of those essential products, you… Read more »
wpDiscuz
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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