OPINION24 November 2022

It’s officially a permacrisis – are we asking the right questions?

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In uncertain times, brands must re-evaluate what they are asking of consumers, and avoid assuming people care more than they actually do, says Louise McLaren. 

Lightning storm lighting up the cloudy sky over a town at night

There we have it – ‘permacrisis’ has gone in the dictionary after being named the Collins word of the year for 2022. It encapsulates the shockwaves we’ve been dealing with and are facing – you already know everything that could fall into this definition.

I will note that since I last wrote an article for Research Live, two months ago, we have had the fever dream of Trussonomics. A brief break from reality with a spell for the country inside an episode of The Thick of It. The memes were next level.

Now we’ve got a more serious prospect of energy blackouts and other winter miseries. I’d be on a plane somewhere warm if it weren’t for one or two of those other enduring crises that get in the way a bit.

All in all, even with what many see as the relatively stabilising force of Rishi Sunak in power, there is a sense of general turbulence, unpredictability, and collective anxiety. With the global economic picture being what it is, we’re seeing re-organisations, profit warnings and budget cuts.

Insight investment is naturally at risk. Of course, some efficiencies might be quite appropriate, and difficult times can inspire us to think differently and even do things better, becoming more focused.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that insight isn’t necessarily about delivering value for the here-and-now but the mid-term – building brand strategies, filling innovation pipelines and identifying white space opportunities. If we don’t continue to invest, our brands will suffer down the line.

Here, we might benefit from thinking about all the trends and enduring needs we identified before the permacrisis took hold – have those needs really gone away, or have they been amplified? How are they being addressed? 

When the context around us is so fraught, we do need to step back and reflect – starting by checking that our assumptions and mental models still hold. 

Are we still asking the right questions?
Consider briefs on, let’s say, premiumisation, upselling or cross-selling. In the current climate, a question on ‘what is worth paying more for?’ might not be right. It might instead be: ‘What makes our brand worth buying at all when money is tight?’ Equally, considering how we deepen brand loyalty might be a stretch – what makes it worth keeping that subscription at all?

Are we in tune with where people’s needs are anchored today?
Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a moment. How sensitive and appropriate is it for us to project brand messages that relate to the top level of the pyramid if many in our target audience are wrestling with more fundamental needs? 

Obviously, there’s no neat answer there – it depends on the category, the message and the context. But the general principle holds that it’s more important than ever that we’re sensitive to the serious struggles people are dealing with and are careful not to appear out of touch.

Are we recognising the role our brands play in people’s lives?
You’ve no doubt heard that little reality check message that others are never thinking about us as much as we imagine they are. Brands, not being human (say what?!), can’t sense-check themselves this way. And I’d suggest that we have a tendency to assume that the brands we work on matter a lot more to people than they do.

Hence those endless questions we are inclined to ask about brand awareness, brand image and so on, sometimes to be met by the answers: ‘I didn’t think that brand even existed anymore’ or ‘I don’t know what they do’.

Think about all that’s taking up mental space for people today. Do they really have the energy to think that much about our brands? How much do they truly care to give feedback on that delivery service or purchase they engaged with for a few seconds?  What value is your brand bringing and why does it matter in today’s context?

What opportunities are revealing themselves? 
As I said earlier, there are needs that existed back in the heady days of 2019 that still matter, and may even have been strengthened. If we consider the various ways in which the crises of today are challenging our health and our economic systems, our mental and physical wellbeing, what opportunities arise?

Where existing systems can’t cope well within their wider contexts, where people are more uncertain than ever, brands can play a better role. New spaces in the market can start to reveal themselves, whether it’s addressing unmet health needs – for example, related to anxiety, menopause, puberty, loneliness, money management and financial planning, or perhaps energy security and household management. The list goes on and on.

Difficult times can breed disruptive thinking. Where can your insight take you?

Louise McLaren is managing director at Lovebrands 

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