Is Your Brand Purpose at Risk of Being Obsolete?

Business leaders must understand how the pandemic has altered the emotional imperatives that affect consumers’ brand choices.

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Great brand purpose and positioning strategy begins with a human insight, not a category insight. It begins with a question of what’s driving consumers to make their decisions — putting an emotional why in front of a behavioral what. As one Journal of Brand Strategy study put it, “In practicing purpose-driven marketing, brands need to connect their purpose to consumer values and human needs.”

In times of great cultural upheaval, those values and needs change. As business leaders, especially brand stewards, look to find their voice in a post-pandemic world, they face a critical question: How has COVID-19 altered the emotional imperatives that affect consumers’ brand choices?

For the past 15 years, my company has conducted a longitudinal survey that tracks the emotional drivers of consumer decision-making and how events in our cultural surroundings are affecting them at any given time. Surveying tens of thousands of people, we quantify which of the 150 different emotional priorities that we call Passion Points are foremost on their minds at the moment, which ones are trending up or down, and which ones are impervious to cultural change.

Using a System 1 approach, we get quick answers. Time pressure is crucial because it prompts people to provide intuitive, instinctive responses, giving us a window into the emotional drivers behind people’s buying decisions. (Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman said that 95% of purchasing decisions take place in the subconscious.) By comparing the results each year with past waves of this survey, we can see the shifts in consumers’ emotional priorities.

The impact of episodes of cultural upheaval on consumer emotions is nothing new: We saw substantial Passion Point shifts following SARS, the Great Recession, the Sandy Hook school shooting, and the 2016 election. But nothing could have prepared us for the breadth of change we’re seeing now, during the coronavirus crisis.

Consider the following three examples of trending emotional priorities that show signs of becoming long-term fixtures in consumers’ collective consciousness.

From ‘We’ Love to ‘Me’ Love

COVID-19 is not like previous crises that brought Americans together. In the latest wave of our survey, none of the top 20 Passion Points showed a rising sense of community. Instead, we saw an upswing in people’s need to focus on themselves, including their own physical and mental health. As one respondent said, “I can’t take care of others unless I take care of myself.”

Among parents, there was a 25% increase in the “Having Fun With My Friends” Passion Point and a 16% decrease in “Teaching My Child to Love Themselves.” Of course, this is not a sign that parents care about their kids any less. Rather, it’s a natural result of being around their children all day. They know the kids are safe and cared for. Meanwhile, parents are missing their adult friends and having time away from the constant demands at home. They need to put on their own oxygen masks first, before helping those around them.

This has enormous implications for family brands seeking their voices in a post-COVID-19 world. For example, a fast-food chain may want to consider moving its purpose away from delighting children and instead focus on delighting parents with a simple, affordable indulgence for themselves.

Optimism and Resilience

In a world beset by a pandemic and all that accompanies it, including an economic recession and political uncertainty, consumers are crying out for brands that can be a beacon of optimism and resilience. This is true across every demographic we study — parents, millennials, Generation Z, and especially kids. In fact, there was a 23% increase in the “Staying Positive” Passion Point among 9-year-olds compared with 2019, and a 12% increase among Gen Z.

Now would be a good time for brand stewards to make these emotions central to their brand’s purpose. Take a page from successful brands that have done this. One of the best examples is the “Fishful Thinking” campaign for Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish crackers. While most of its competition was promising zesty new flavors and turning to celebrity influencers, the Goldfish brand built its purpose around fostering a sense of optimism and resilience. Its marketing focused on the happy face on its crackers, declaring them “the snack that smiles back.” The brand grew its market share despite higher prices than some competitors’.

Personal Agency

One of the most rapidly ascending emotional priorities among the 150 we track was “Rebelling Against the Rules.” Largely confined to their homes, many people have grown angry and frustrated. They’re seeking safe ways of reasserting their power and personal agency.

In consumer interviews, where we collect qualitative information in addition to quantitative data, we found that this impulse to rebel helped explain why more adults are eating sweetened cereals. It also helps explain the massive appeal of the Netflix series Tiger King, which features a man who rebels against every social norm. In reconsidering their purpose and positioning, brand managers should consider how their products can be used to give people a sense of rejecting expectations and asserting their autonomy.

Our past experience indicates that many of these emotional changes will remain with consumers for years to come. Make no assumptions about your consumer based on the one you knew in the past. That consumer is gone — and will not be coming back anytime soon.


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