Question of the Week


Treading on Eggshells? Getting It Right in 2022

We asked experts how brands can navigate the bleak outlook of the year ahead

By Elliot Leavy

Inflation at its highest in thirty years, hundreds of thousands of cancer patients left untreated, potential war with Russia that threatens to push energy costs even higher than they already are.

This is but a snapshot of what the consumers face in 2022, with other issues such as the lockdown-induced mental health crisis, continuous climate change anxiety and the general disdain of the country of the recurrent parties in Number 10 Downing Street providing an even grimmer picture. In short, the outlook for many is not looking good.

When everything seems so bleak, are brands at risk of treading on eggshells? Creative Salon asked the experts what lessons (if any) could be learnt from previous periods of crisis and more generally, “How brands can get it tonally right in 2022?”

Jo Arden, chief strategy officer, Publicis.Poke

We’ve been marketing in a crisis for two years. Shop closures, product shortages, furlough, staff shortages, stuff stuck on the Ever Given, the pingdemic. When we think about what we can learn from previous crisis, we don’t have to think too far back. The crucial thing we’ve learnt must be empathy. A cost-of-living increase will hurt us all. Consumer spending is driven by confidence and in a recession, confidence converges. Brands need to show that they are here to help not just to sell: whether it’s keeping food on the table, managing heating costs, or luxuries which don’t cost the earth.

Tom White, chief strategy officer, AMV BBDO

Animal Crackers.

Revenge of the Pink Panther.

Home Alone.

Tropic Thunder.

What do all these movies have in common?

First, they were all number one at the box office at times of severe economic hardship (in order, the aftershock in the UK of the Wall Street Crash, 1979’s Winter of Discontent, the 1990 Recession, and the banking crisis of 2008)

Second, they’re all comedies.

It’s a reminder of the vagaries involved in understanding how people want to feel at any time, and particularly in tough times.

And that the answer for brands doesn’t always have to be the obvious one-to-one of simply reflecting back at them their current anxieties in the attempt of striking a compatible tone.

The emotional tumble dryer of the last 24 months has put all of us in a strange place.

But any attempt to throw a blanket over all of it and call it ‘the national mood’ won’t get brands any place other than the usual soupy similitude of ‘we’re by your side’.

Because the reality is that people are all in different places.

Many will be feeling scared about where the money’s coming from to pay the heating and food.

Others feel fortunate enough to have been able to save money otherwise spent on holidays and work commutes.

Others still have re-invented themselves, changed professions, and are fuelled by a new feeling of purpose and possibility.

The national mood’s all over the map, so a single set of GPS directions won’t be enough to meet your audience where they are.

Neither are we all the same person all of the time. We hum at different emotional frequencies from one moment to the next, at different points in the consumer journey.

People who study such things tell us there are 27 discernible human emotions (a more recent study contends even more, at 87).

Yet most brands tend only to colour in their communications with relatively few of them.

When in order to embrace the totality of how our audience will be feeling the next 12 months, we need to expand our paint set. 

Ruairi Curran, executive strategy director, Gravity Road

Though there are lessons aplenty from last year (Eon's socks), 2008 (BBC ad spend), 1991, the 70's, the Fall of Rome...anyone looking for clarity on appropriate tone in a crisis may benefit from a littler lens...

Consider someone you know is in a moment of crisis. Now insert yourself into that moment, and imagine yourself standing in front of them.

Do you feel you should be there? Do you feel you'd know what to say, and how to say it?

If the person you are imagining is someone close to you, perhaps you feel secure and can imagine being welcomed by them. If the person you chose to consider is someone you don't know that well...then perhaps you can imagine someone else being better in that position than you - someone who has more right to be there, who would say the right thing without hesitation...perhaps someone there in a professional capacity, who has a clear understanding of their purpose and is a welcome presence...

This parallel feels appropriate because of the gravity of the situation. In a Twitter thread which went viral last week, Chef Jack Monroe went through individual food items and explained how there had been a 344 per cent price increase for basic items such as rice in supermarkets. YouGov reported that 33 per cent of UK adults expect their fuel bills to become unaffordable in 2022. Other recent YouGov reports reveal that most 25-49 year olds say 'stressed' is their dominant mood, and 13 per cent of all adults exist in a state of constant exhaustion.

If a brand-owner/manager is sensitive to the real world context, has a complete grasp of their target audience sentiment, and still feels they have something relevant to say to them - they probably don't need to worry about tone, as the integrity of their decision-making will be present enough. Any brand insensitive to this context, coming with a brand-out — instead of audience-first — perspective, may be guilty of over-thinking their intention, and under-thinking their possible effect.

James Whatley, strategy partner, Digitas UK

During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the brands that got it right were the ones that understood their value and usefulness in consumers’ lives.

According to the most recent Trussell Trust report, 2.5 million food parcels were given to people in crisis in the last year alone. When we talk about tone, we don’t just mean words, we mean actions.

For example, in the same week that Walmart announced it was getting into selling NFTs and cryptocurrencies, Iceland’s CEO went on national TV and announced it was losing customers to food banks and hunger – and subsequently pledged to keep its £1 items at the flat rate of £1 for the rest of 2022.

Brands more than ever need to have empathy for their consumers. Lean on your segmentation – and your strategists - keep your teams diverse and do whatever you can to keep yourselves honest.

Gen Kobayashi, chief strategy officer, Engine UK

I think the lesson we can learn is that during times of financial crisis, creativity has tended to flourish. Whether it was Punk in the 70s or Acid House during the “Super Recession” of the 80s, difficult times have tended to stoke the fires of creativity. And I believe it’s equally true of commercial creativity. Whether it was P&G inventing the first piece of branded content, the “Soap Opera”, during the Great Recession of the 1920s to BMP’s anarchic Smash Martians in the 1970s  – advertising found mind-blowing new ways to captivate its audience in times of difficulty.

And importantly this brand of creativity was filled with escapism and wonder, it didn’t try to hold a mirror up to the hardships of its audience. I think we could learn a lot from that in 2022

Marie Oldham, executive chair, VCCP Media

If “blah, blah, blah” was the mantra of 2021, “action not words” will underpin 2022. As the cost of basics such as milk, bread and energy increase dramatically, discretionary spend will decrease and many consumers will have to make tough choices. Consumers are already changing behaviours to reduce energy usage and delay decisions on big ticket items. Consumer confidence is dropping, reaching -15 per cent in December, politics is a shambles and Russia is spoiling for a fight. Britons are “battening down the hatches”.  

The nation is moving into “survival” mode, not against Covid, but against financial, political and environmental instability. We are looking to brands to enable us to maintain a decent standard of living, help us protect our families, our planet and maybe even allow us to have small treats. Sainsbury’s is already price matching Aldi and Lidl and the search for high quality, good value food will continue to change shopping behaviours – consumers may switch or have a repertoire of supermarkets and also use local, good value products to top up. On a brand level they will look for action on value but also action for the planet – our decision making on petrol, technology, beauty products and fashion will be shaped by a complex mix of value for money, cost to the planet and commitment to the everyday folk of the UK. 

We will continue to see a desire for Britishness. Community and home remain high in our priorities, offering clear opportunities for brands to demonstrate their role in helping Britain “get through” 2022 on a family, local and national level.

In order to stay in tune with consumers, VCCP created our “Winning in the Rebound” segmentation early in 2021. Our well-off segment, “Revenge Spenders” will continue to spend through this tough period. They saw the pandemic as a nudge to enjoy life whilst they can, to seize the day and buy luxe – Rolls Royce sales in 2021 were the highest in 117 years. On the other hand, our “Rationers”, our comfortable but cautious segment, will scrutinise every penny and buy brands that are taking actions to support the people of Britain now and for the long term.  More than ever, listening to our consumers is the only way to get it tonally right on the bumpy period ahead.

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