Network agency experts explain how brands can avoid a Marie Antoinette moment
As mortgage rates in the UK go up, and the cost of living continues to rise in the US, brands risk seeming out of touch if they don't work to match the national mood.
Outside the advertising bubble, things aren't so rosy for consumers. In the UK and the US, the cost of living is still rising, and wages are still stagnant. That means people are likely to spend less and perhaps feel less optimistic in general. They're certain to respond differently to marketing messages - especially fair-weather ones that encourage them to simply eat cake. So, how does that affect the way brands advertise to them? And how can agencies modulate the tone of voice to suit the gloomy mood of the times? We asked nine experts for their advice.
How do you solve a problem like ... matching the national mood?
Julia Ayling, head of research and insights, Mindshare: "The worries of the last few years are impacting the national mood across multiple aspects of life - from shorter-term financial pressures, through to longer-term disruption and reassessment of big life plans.
"Older, more affluent audiences are feeling relatively positive about both the present-day and longer-term plans. They are also more upbeat about their financial health in general. But it's important to not think about them in isolation. Those who are comfortably off will have friends and family who are struggling, and because of these connections, they are keenly aware of not appearing to be profligate or flashy with their cash. Alongside this, they've also become much more price sensitive in general, even though their requirements to do this may be lower than other audiences. As a result, risk aversion has increased across the board. Messages need to flex to accommodate this, using social proofing to reassure, and finding ways to demonstrate brand kindness and support wherever possible.
"For groups that are struggling, our research suggests that value isn't just about the lowest price and brands can dial up attributes such as service, added partnerships or money-saving attributes. For all audiences, finding ways to treat both themselves and the ones they love, is more important than ever, and can help to reintroduce a little joy and normality back into life. Brands have opportunities to build long-term brand affinity by going the extra mile to make something that someone has saved for even more special."
Tony Quinn, chief strategy officer at BBD Perfect Storm: "If businesses aren't acting now, then it might be time to hit the grass and enjoy the sun(burn). Because now, more than ever before, we are needed. Not through soothing words of empathy: 'At [insert patronizing brand), we understand that ... ' No, you don't. And people sense it! Not through discounts: 'Thanks - but with my bills skyrocketing, a 5p price slash means nothing.' Read. The. Room. If the value we place anywhere is profoundly felt when it's needed most, then that time is now. Add value, bring laughter, work tirelessly to improve people's quality of life. It's easy to be there when times are good, to be a 'fair-weather friend'. But it takes more to step up in people's time of need. So be a foul-weather friend. Even when it's sunny."
Chris Whitson, global head of strategy, Iris: "Everywhere you turn and everywhere you go, the conversation inevitably turns to rising costs and interest rates and the palpable fear that this could continue. When interest rates rise month on month you can sense panic in the air. "But the worst possible thing for brands to do at times like this is to lean into fear. Honest recognition of the challenges our audiences face will help provide credibility and connection, but optimism and hope are the soothing balm consumers crave at times like this. I'd encourage every brand to think about what it can do to help. Help us not only make it through the tough times but help us believe there are definitely better times to come."
David Balko, chief client officer, Tribal Worldwide: "Brands have a fine line to walk during the array of ongoing crises - there is an expectation to keep costs down and show customers their support while making sure they're not constantly reminding them of the pressures they're facing. "If advertising became a true reflection of the nation's mood, our industry would become a pessimistic place. In years to come, people won't remember the adverts that represented the polycrisis, but rather those that made us laugh, captured our attention and ultimately helped reduce our economic anxieties."
Megan Curley, senior vice-president and regional experience strategy lead, Rapp West: "Stay close: whether using social listening tools or conducting interviews, the voice of customer insight will put brands in touch with what their customers are really thinking. Stay true: while it's important for brands to be in touch with the public's mood, not every moment warrants a response. Today's consumers are quick to call out superficial attempts to empathize. Revisit your brand's purpose to help determine its part. Focus on loyalty: when consumers are scrutinizing their dollars, delivering an exceptional experience is critical to driving satisfaction and building brand love."
Jordan McDowell, strategy director, McCann Manchester: "According to McCann Truth Central's landmark study, The Truth About Britain, the most used word to describe the national mood in 2017 was 'uncertain'. In 2022, it was the same word. But, the same study cited our sense of humour as an attribute of Britishness worth protecting. And therein lies the truth about Britain. No matter how tough things get, we're a resilient bunch and our wry perspective on the world is one of the ways we get through. Matching the national mood isn't a brand's job, but understanding it is. Understand how your customers are impacted and remember it's not your brand's job to remind them things are tough but to offer an easy way of navigating it. A laugh along the way never hurts either."
Tom Sussman, deputy chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett: "The key is not how much we match the mood of the nation, but how well we now answer it. Recently, agencies have made a good show of understanding and matching the concern of those affected. Our research is starting to suggest these efforts may not have landed as much as we might have liked. "It's certainly no act of spellbinding insight to know people are struggling right now. So, it should really be of no surprise that just announcing, 'we get what you're going through!' has proven unlikely to win many friends. Instead of this compassion, what people really want from brands right now is their cooperation. They don't want us to match, reflect or acknowledge what they're going through, they want us to help them do something about it. This cooperation might be practical (some good old-fashioned competence), financial, or emotional. Whatever the case, instead of trying to match the public mood, let's all now get properly stuck into answering it with some much-needed competence, value or even just a good old laugh."
Paul Greenwood, head of research and insight, We Are Social: "As shoppers' habits evolve in the cost-of-living crisis, brands have a unique opportunity to deliver more tailored and nuanced messaging. Discounters can explicitly highlight cost and quality, showcasing value in dupe products. Mass market and aspiring premium brands can tap into 'treat brain', positioning themselves as joyful rewards. Whilst luxury brands, renowned for escapism and exclusivity, should continue leveraging these elements to stand out. "Ultimately, all brands must prioritize building loyalty beyond products, fostering meaningful connections. It's a transformative landscape and seizing this opportunity is pivotal for building a brand and forging lasting consumer engagement."
Emily Hall, senior campaign director, The Goat Agency: "Advertisers need to be conscious of the national mood, and this is particularly the case with influencer marketing. In fact, at Goat, we've seen that influencer content that references the cost-of-living crisis actually performs better in terms of engagement and positive sentiment. It of course doesn't need to be the focus, but acknowledging it helps audiences to see the influencer in a relatable light. It comes back to the evolution of influencers which has accelerated post-pandemic, in that they've gone from being glossy and glamourizing 'perfection', to more authentic, unfiltered, and showing behind-the-scenes 'real-life content'. For influencers to talk about real-life issues and news, it makes them feel real and relatable."