When Days Are Dark, Be A Little Light

The state of commerce in a post-apocalyptic world: Advice for brands to navigate the commercial wasteland.

  • State of commerce

By Matthew van der Valk

It’s Day 483 of lockdown. Well, at least that’s how it feels – levels and restrictions in their various permutations are as diverse in their extensions as they are in their vagueness.

As it stands, we are all finding ourselves navigating a “new normal” in these “trying times”. In case you were unsure of this, or if you’d forgotten, don’t worry – you’ll be reminded of it in (what seems like) every piece of brand communication that is currently being put out.

With all of the speculation around the economy, our healthcare system, permanent consumer behavioural shifts, less disposable income for households and unemployment at never-before-seen levels – how will brands recover?

Going Back To Basics

I believe that the brands that are going to survive – and, ultimately, thrive – in the new economy will be those that return to fundamentals by stoking the fires of desire that drive consumer behaviour – those behavioural patterns that are true to our human condition and have delivered us from the many evolutionary disasters of our collective past.

It may sound a little dramatic, but the way we shop is largely correlated with our ingrained psychological drivers that have ensured our species’ survival over the millennia by helping us to fulfil our most basic of needs. This is not news to the marketing fraternity. However, the type of emotional discourse required will be very different as we, collectively, do what we do best as a species – adapt. So, what will these adaptations be and how can brands navigate them?

Staying Alive

The first is the most basic and instinctual: self-preservation.

Sure, we’re no longer running for our lives from woolly mammoths, but the fight or flight response to impending danger (or at least discomfort) remains the same. If you don’t believe me, just try grabbing the last box of organic chicken stock from a Woolies shelf in plain sight of a Constantia mummy and you’ll see what I mean (when she fights you. To the death). Indeed, scarcity breeds benightment – as anyone who’s attended an end-of-season sale or tried to buy a pre-lockdown pack of two-ply can attest to.

The Power of the Store

So, what does this mean for brands, you may be wondering? Well, whether it’s navigating supply shortages or pushing relevance to an emerging demographic, the in-store environment starts to become an exponentially more powerful channel.

The store has always been the land of the impulse buy, where brand equity can be quickly eradicated with a competitor’s simple two-for-one deal. Now, as consumers are forced to watch their spending, they will need better excuses to part with their cash.

That said, there is also a tension at play. The dichotomy of feeling the need to save every cent that’s easily thwarted by that impulse purchase quick thrill. Brands that can justify the thrill of an impulse buy and show real value in supporting the consumer, will be the brands that win. My simple advice? Return to the store and create an experience – both in the shopping occasion and the occasion your consumers are shopping for – help them justify their spend for the moments that matter to them. If you can help your consumers feel good about their impulse purchase and eliminate those post-spend blues, you’ll be able to create a boomerang effect that drives a new-world loyalty.

Crafty Messaging

The second adaptation I’d like to mention has to do with media consumption.  As I just mentioned, the store is where both essential and “essential” purchases are made, so effective in-store communication is key whether we’re talking bricks or clicks.

That said, we are always shopping, to some degree. Whether we’re coveting a friend’s new jacket, looking around our homes with a critical eye, thinking about what’s missing or enviously dreaming about an experience had by a relative stranger, we are always somewhere along the purchase decision journey.

In our new hypervigilant world, this means maximising channels that consumers cannot avoid interacting with: physical stores, brand experiences (whether intrinsic, such as product design, or extrinsic, like how the brand makes a person feel) and through a screen, from content to e-tail. With a shrewder focus on channels, brands can turn their energy to securing a better return on investment.

These channels also offer an opportunity within the challenge of even more distracted shoppers. Yes, it’s true that a distracted shopper is harder to communicate with, but they are also easier to upsell with the old, “hey, you’re buying one, shouldn’t you just get two?” – especially when they are closer to (on or offline) points of sale. The rational minds of consumers are far more concerned with not breathing in fellow shoppers’ droplets than they are with questioning whether one or two is the right number of a particular product.

Ah, but what about non-FMCG products, I hear you say. Well, the same logic applies – it’s all about the rationality of making the non-essential essential to the moments that matter in consumers’ lives. Consider: What are the features that feel important to them and are, therefore, essential?

Take a new car, for example. You’re already spending hundreds of thousands so you may as well get these “essential” add-ons that make life just a little more comfortable. The reasoning is that with a greater consumer awareness of what they are spending their money on, and overall consumer spending down, every purchase decision becomes a considered one, whether it’s a new car, or toothpaste. By focusing on channels that are closest to the final purchase decision, brands can drive and rationalise the stronger consideration at the point where it matters most – where the purchase is completed.

Lighten Up

My third and final adaptation for brands to consider is around consumers’ appetite for a particular tone.

Over the last few months, consumers have been inundated with somber messages from brands, governments and each other. The negative message fatigue is real, and we are all desperate for a bit of lightness. So, my suggestion is that, in a sea of gloom, a bit of humour will shine all the brighter.

I’m not suggesting that every piece of comms you put out becomes a joke, just that a little lightness at the end of this COVID tunnel will provide consumers with some much-needed relief and bring them closer to your brand.

What the world doesn’t need right now is another Debbie-downer brand preaching social distancing and reminding consumers for the 45 922 345th time to wash their hands and get vaccinated. If you take nothing else out of this article, my appeal to you as brand custodians is that, when days are dark, be a little light.

Matthew van der Valk is an Executive Creative Director at VMLY&R South Africa.

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