Thought Leadership

How can brands ensure they don’t appear tone deaf in the wake of the cost-of-living crisis?

Now more than ever consumers will be loyal to brands that show they understand them

Georgie Moreton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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The mounting cost of living crisis is having a severe impact on consumers across the UK. Yet, where many have lost faith in government, brands are presented with a unique opportunity to gain trust and show they can have a real impact and be there for their customers in tough times. 

Whether it be engaging in the conversation on social media, slashing prices or creating reward schemes, consumers are looking to brands for help. Arguably consumers will be loyal to those who show that they understand and are there for them long term, suggesting that going dark on communications is not an option.

Yet striking the balance of being there for customers whilst also maintaining business as usual is no easy feat. The cost of living crisis is front page news almost every day, people don’t want to be lectured to or need to be patronised. It's a challenge but one that isn’t going away anytime soon. So we asked industry leaders ‘How can brands ensure they don’t appear tone deaf in the wake of the cost-of-living crisis?’

Randell Beckford

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Senior Strategist

Atomic London

With many economic experts stressing that we have barely scratched the surface of austerity, it’s important for brands to take a long-term approach to the cost of living crisis. 

We are already seeing hits and misses ranging from questionable hacks to very unfortunate puns about energy prices. Rather than falling into a reactive trap, my advice for brands looking to avoid appearing tone deaf is simple, be helpful and be hopeful.

Admittedly it would be naive to appear completely oblivious to the challenges many are facing but at the same time, not everything needs to be a worthy statement about being “here for you” or a perpetual reminder that times are remarkably tough. 

Hope is more important now than ever, and we are not seeing it enough from brands. People want to believe that things will get better, and they need help to look ahead and see the possibility of improvement.  

Being helpful is about making a meaningful difference.  Helping people in meaningful ways by running promotions on the things they actually buy and helping overcome barriers people actually face in their real lives. If solution orientated brands are prepared to feel their customers’ pain in the short term and provide some positive distraction, they will be thanked for it in the longer term.

Catherine Aithal

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Strategy Partner

The Specialist Works

When faced with a recession, marketing budgets are often cut, which results in brands losing out to rivals and ultimately delaying their recovery in the long run. For brands that don’t reign back spend, what is the best approach to ensuring they don’t come across insensitive or tone deaf during a cost of living crisis?

My advice would be, stick to being forensically consumer-focused. Truly understand the impact the current climate is likely to have on your consumers and demonstrate empathy or an authentic way to give back if it makes sense for your brand to play a role in that space. 

Brands need to have a longer term brand health plan. This plan should be centred around aligning with consumers during a time of hardship. It should take into consideration that many consumers will be stretched, and will be changing their purchasing habits in order to try to cope with the crisis. Sending out the right message of support, through marketing, will ensure that brands don’t come across out of touch with consumers, which will reap huge benefits for the brand post recession.  But bear in mind your customers and your category.  Make sure you are empathetic to their circumstances. 

Finally, keep calm and carry on. Recessions don’t last forever. But do try and heed the advice given by countless marketing professionals who have experienced many other recessions. Don’t be tone deaf to that goldmine of experience. 

Paul Maskell

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Client Services Director & Founder

Yolk

Undoubtedly, price and value will remain exceptionally prevalent in the minds of all consumers – particularly those with less disposable income; however, I truly believe the measure of brand success during this time will not solely derive from those metrics.

As the world turns inside out, brand purpose will play a significant part in this journey. Those brands that continue to ‘play out’ their purpose led values will inevitably find these times challenging, however will possess that brand point of difference. Slip into ‘price and value comms wars’ and loyal customers could start to get suspicious of their ethics / values.

Brands need to take stock now. Now is the time to adjust brand value propositions, and hone in on the channels that possess greater success for targeting their customers during this period of unrest. They must invest heavily in regular audience understanding and truly listen to their loyalists (on a more than regular basis) – as well as appear relevant to potential new customers too.

Now is the time to become more meaningful than ever, however this must be 100% authentic. The slightest sniff of insincerity and prepare to be exposed like queue jumping celebrity TV presenters! Not a good look. 

Michela Graci

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Strategy Partner

Coley Porter Bell

When earlier this year, Boris Johnson’s government called on brands to cut marketing spend and divert resources into price cutting, it was met with robust opposition from brands pointing to the importance of marketing as a growth lever for both businesses and the economy.

Indeed, even in times of crisis – perhaps even more so in times of crisis – it is important for brands to engage and communicate with their customers. Although they must be careful to strike the right balance with both tone and investment, a continued dialogue provides reassurance and often important information.

This is where focusing messaging on brand value is so important. It provides customers with useful and relevant information as well as giving reasons to attach to – and stick with – your brand through periods of economic inflation. This could include suggesting how to make the most of your products to save money, how you improve the experience to help more vulnerable customers, or how your sustainable strategy benefits the quality of your products. And when push comes to shove, being honest and transparent about the causes of price increases is also critical to avoiding consumer resentment while fostering understanding – and possibly loyalty.

Turbulent times also necessitate some escapism and freedom from constant negativity. So, brands have the chance to tap into human psychology and the desire people feel to escape from reality and enjoy some fun and unrestrained entertainment. Using branding and communications skills, creativity and influence as an uplifting force to boost the mood of the nation – without appearing tone-deaf – is a powerful antidote to the doom and gloom we sense all around us.

As society navigates ‘stagflation’ and cost-of-living crunch, the biggest opportunity for brands still able to invest in marketing and brand activation initiatives is to engage by building value, without losing the chance whenever appropriate to put a much-needed smile on people’s faces.

Crises pass but the memories left behind, reminding people of what you did for them during turbulent times, won’t. And that, coupled with the impact and reach of marketing and comms activity builds resilience that sustains business and brand growth.

Benedict Buckland

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Chief Creative Officer

Alan - Global B2B Marketing Agency

The pandemic really set the tone for solemn, deeply sincere condolences from brands. And whilst some were poignant, most were simply platitudes. And now, as we find ourselves in the midst of the cost-of living crisis and steadily approaching a recession, the expressions of generic sympathy are no longer going to cut it. Brands need to focus on two things: human truth and utility

Brands will have to go beyond the obvious and understand their audience on a nuanced, intimate level. The ones that share messages which actually resonate with their consumers will stand out in a crowded marketplace at a critical time. My advice to brands is to pause and invest in understanding their audience’s experience qualitatively before deciding what their messaging is. It takes time, empathy, and a delicacy uncommon in modern marketing, but the discovery of such human truths can be revelatory.

Appreciating your audience in a delicate, human way also gives brands direction on what their target audience crave and need. Using this information, brands should focus on programmes that genuinely help and are not thinly-veiled attempts to push a product. Take it back to the fundamental principles of content marketing: content (or activity) that’s truly ‘valuable and relevant to the target audience’.

While brands shouldn’t go beyond where they have legitimacy, they must be confident to constructively support their audience on issues that are not directly related to their service offering. This audience-first, unbiased approach is on point for the public mood and is proven to build trust and genuine brand affinity.

Richard Exon

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Founder

Joint

The pandemic kickstarted swathes of sincere and empathetic advertising. But with Dettol, the world’s largest disinfectant brand, missing the mark with its ad campaigns during a time when hand sanitiser was never used so much, it's clear brands need to think carefully about their advertising tactics as we head into another difficult winter.

It’s easy for brands to stay on the sidelines and watch until everything passes. But we already know that slashing ad spend isn’t good for anyone, and the cost of living crisis won’t be resolved overnight. Instead, brands need to focus on actions, not just words, creative points of difference and looking at what their audience actually needs from them. 

Brands should be taking concrete measures to support their customers wherever possible. Telling people what to do at a peak of a crisis won’t go down well - as we saw when E.On sent its customers socks to encourage them to turn down the heating. A heartfelt apology soon followed but the damage had been done. However, we’ve already seen big retailers like Asda, Morrisons and Iceland respond and behave well – with Iceland being the first to launch a buy-now-pay-later scheme to support customers with soaring costs.

And it isn’t just about what brands can offer, it’s about how that offer is communicated to customers. In difficult times this means investing in creative excellence, when just the right turn of phrase, the perfectly judged image or something surprising but welcome can make all the difference. 

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cost of living