We are all in relationships of varying forms – One would theoretically argue that relationships should ideally start at the basic level of ´relationship with self´ and, a divine higher being. This then can be followed by relationships with others – parents, siblings, friends, spouses and so on and so forth. In business terms, the relationships a brand builds should always start with the brand knowing itself before moving on to connect with its target consumers. It is critical that what the brand is and stands for is very clear at the fore to enable it to build a strong foundation and confidence to take the ´vow´ before the target consumer in form of a USP.
Once the relationship takes off, just like in ideal human relationships, the moments the brand creates and shares with its consumers would be very central to the long-term stability or growth of the relationship. Moments that are emotionally touching and mutually unforgettable help deepen the love – consumers hardly forget how the brand made them feel. Further, exploring ways of keeping the spark alive is fundamental to growing the connection – creating instances along the relationship with consumers to re-ignite the bond.
Whenever there are issues in the relationship, saying ´sorry´ and seeking forgiveness in an authentic way builds trust and by extension, some form of protection against any future disaster in the relationship. This is a critical point in this era of growing role customer experience in driving brand growth. We always remember how brands treat us whenever there is an issue that relates to how we have been served or quality of the product.
We also know that relationships go through ups and downs – and in well deepened relationship, the vow holds – the brand and the consumer stay tightly hinged no matter what the good times or the tough times bring their way. A more relevant tough situation is our current challenging economic environment. In recent months, we have been reminded almost daily about this. In fact, today in church, there was a request for congregants to improve the tithe amounts which have been observed to be steadily declining over the recent months – could this be an indication of hard times?
During what is seen as tough economic times, both sides – brands and consumers adjust – in trying to ´survive´. Businesswise, marketing strategy, tactics and budgets get revised to protect the overall business performance. Without going into details of numbers, we have seen companies report revenue declines, cost cutting measures, run short term consumer promotions, postpone business investments such as new hires, new products to a later - and hopefully, ´better´ days. On the consumer side, there is evidence of falling purchasing power since April 2019 driven by a myriad of factors and worsened by increasing inflation on food & drinks that forms a big portion of typical household expenditure. There have been observations that when under such hard times, consumers react in different ways – based on their psychological and financial capacity to handle the situation.
The first group, with presumably the weakest brand love, would quickly stop buying the particular brand they were buying altogether – and switch immediately to whatever alternative is on offer or even exit the category altogether. Though not entirely, this group is likely to sit in the lower end of the market (C2DE) and relevant example would include reducing number of meals per day, walking or cycling to work versus using public transport, stopping to make calls or using mobile data altogether. To keep the ´vow´ with these consumers, brands must go down to their level with initiatives that help discourage them from completely ´shutting out´ what is on offer. This could partly mean having smaller ´kadogo´ packs that cater for the reduced power to afford, introducing more affordable, ´lite´ or fighter brands to keep the relationship going through the rough stretch in a bid to show empathy.
We may have observed this second consumer reaction – typically seen among what we traditionally call the middle class – they feel the pinch yes but take a much longer time to make any adjustments if any. Their relatively better income allows them to keep stretching – so long as their standard of living remains undisrupted. Their love for specific brands will stay on for a while – almost to same levels as during ´good times´. They may adjust frequency of usage by probably tightening usage habits at home – in the case of a CPG, but remain within the brand, to maintain the image they desire. To keep the ´vow´ with these consumers, brands may explore running non price communication – advertising that emphasize other benefits of the brand, ensuring that prices are held, and compliance is monitored closely. This group is also likely to go for stock piling / buying in bulk – meaning that bonus offers on specific brands can help keep them hinged. Reviewing and releasing loyalty/reward points to loyal customers during such times can also help spice up the relationship with this group.
The third group is also probably observable to all of us – this group stays comfortable regardless of the situation – their well-off status allows them to absorb any price changes – almost without feeling any pinch. This is likely to be very top of the social economic class pyramid. They are unlikely to post pone any purchases during this tough stretch. In their economically advantaged position, some may be sensitive to what is happening to the rest of the consumers who are hard pressed – to help them manage this emotion, brands could explore providing discreet shopping opportunities such as online shopping channels, private banking wings, private dining and so and so forth. This is the group that will take up any exciting new offers easily and thus help with driving brand innovation agenda during tough times.
The last group take a day at a time during these tough days – whatever they get, they spend without worry about tomorrow – they take one day at a time. These are likely to be the younger, urban consumers – millennials. They need brands to give lower cost options and with evidence of how they are saving. Encouraging them to think about ´tomorrow´ is also a good idea to explore.
Bad times, just like good times, come and go – and as seen, consumers react in varied ways. Some of these reactions may end up as long-term shifts in consumer values and attitudes – for example, consumers who learn to ´survive´ without a product or brand may adjust to that situation for the long term leading to loss of business for the brand. Aligning marketing mix elements to the changing market reality is a crucial part of demonstrating empathy and bolstering trust between the brand and the consumers. These can be reinforced with messages that emotionally reassure consumers of the emotional connection – but the messages must also be backed up by actions that show that the brand is on the consumer´s side – true, authentic love must always be shown in in the action (what the brand is actually doing, not just the promise).
This is the time for brands to invest in building the love and connection with consumers, giving consumers memorable experiences that will ensure that when situation improves, consumers will remain in love with the brand and be the future source of business. The expected shifts in consumer values and attitudes during hard times warrants more investment in market research to assess how consumer priorities are shifting, how they are reallocating their budgets, how they are switching between product categories and what they see as value for money. Insights on these and related objectives can partly help develop strategies and tactics to keep brand love alive and the business as a whole, to endure the tough times.