Thought Leadership

Has the pandemic brought an end to the season of restrictive marketing?

In the wake of Coronavirus are brands having to shift their messaging away from the traditional January detox?

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


New Year’s resolutions; whether dry January, Veganuary or the restrictions of calorie counting, the traditional ‘New Year New You’ marketing messages traditionally rely on those that encourage consumers to give up the things they love. Yet as the world continues to navigate its way out of the pandemic, have we seen a shift in the way consumers respond to restrictive new year challenges? 

Where in previous years ‘Dry January’ has seen record numbers of participants, in 2022 the hospitality industry is urging people not to take on the challenge and instead think about steady moderation. Meanwhile, for Veganuary, the likes of Meatless Farm is encouraging people to swap out one red-meat meal per week if they are not ready to take the full vegan plunge. Restraint; yes, absolute restrictions; no. 

In a world where consumers have been bombarded with ‘do-not’s’, does taking on yet more restrictive challenges add an extra layer of pressure on exhausted consumers or provide motivation for personal improvement? As the pandemic continues on and lockdowns and restrictions remain a very real possibility, marketers face a difficult challenge trying to navigate the mood of consumers. 

With the New Year fully underway, we ask marketers; has the pandemic brought an end to the New Year restrictive season of marketing in favour of a push toward more sustainable behavioural shifts?

Anj Joseph


Strategy Director

Wolff Olins

Last summer, the FT ran an article on “Treat Brain”. The article’s author had noticed that our pandemic behaviour of seeking out little pleasures - nice snacks, booze, trashy TV - persisted, even when lockdowns had been lifted. 6 months on, our lives still feel like they could be restricted at a moment’s notice - so it’s not surprising that people aren’t keen to add self-denial to their list of New Year’s resolutions. 

But there’s also a parallel narrative - that we became more sedentary and/or were less healthy during the pandemic. As consumers, we find ourselves caught in the middle. We crave treats and are desperate to cut loose. But we’re also being told that we need to cut back.

For brands, this feels like a minefield. The ones that will navigate this will be the ones that emphasise enjoyment, whilst helping consumers modify their choices in moderation. The food world does this well – you only need to look at the Instagram feeds of Nigella or MOB Kitchen to see beautiful, moreish vegan recipes, every bit as appetising as their carnivorous equivalents. For me, this feels like a step forward: I’ve always found January’s diet culture troubling, and it’s easy to see how blanket restrictions (on animal products, alcohol etc) are an extension of this. 

So for marketers this means looking beyond messaging, to what you actually do for your consumers. What are you going to create that’s going to help people find joy in living better?

Will Hanmer-Lloyd

will behave.jpg

Head of Behave and Strategy

Total Media


During the past 2 years the pandemic has meant that we have had to deny ourselves many of the pleasures of life – seeing our friends, travelling, going to restaurants. This could potentially reduce our appetite for restricting ourselves in 2022.

However, the evidence doesn’t appear to suggest that people are doing this. According to YouGov 16% of people have made New Year’s resolutions this year – which is nearly 50% more than the number that made them in 2021.

January is a good time to make new year’s resolutions due to the fresh start effect; the fact that humans tend to set targets after key dates or milestones as they can see them as being a reset on past behaviour.

Rather than reduce this, the pandemic could increase our desire to see 2022 as a reset from a year that many see as negative – people say they drank more, exercised less, were less social or developed many behaviours they don’t want long term to cope with lockdown.

But as Covid shifts to being an endemic issue, this is a good time for people to create new long term habits. Our current pandemic influenced habits will be destabilised and that is the perfect opportunity to start new behaviours.

The key for brands will be in how they frame the message. Rather than focussing on what people can give up, brands should frame 2022 as a new opportunity to gain; better health, a more ethical lifestyle they had to give up, new hobbies they couldn’t commit to before.

Brands can try to help build a sense of excitement about regaining and developing new opportunities after a period of restriction.

Will Humphrey

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Strategy Director

Wunderman Thompson

In the old world, things felt a lot more fixed. Sponsored days became sponsored weeks, and set seasons followed the other. Halloween sweets became Christmas largesse which became puritanical January betterment.

Where culture went, Marketing and brands followed (and embellished).

But a shift is slowly but surely occurring. Many fashion houses now don’t dress against set seasons. Multiple car brands have ditched expensive, one-off car launches.

It all seems a bit, well, wasteful. Not good waste, in the advertising awareness sense, but bad waste, spending for spending’s sake.

I believe brands have a decision to make. They can wallow in the lukewarm waters of the ‘new normal’ and go along with the crowd’s worthy (but dull) intentions. They won’t be accused of hectoring customers; Purpose feels like a Good Thing to them and their shareholders.

Alternatively, brands can strike out, and motivate. They can be the markers of quality they were always meant to be. That doesn’t mean acting as Thought Police. Simply put, it means inspiring people to come with them.

Whether it’s REI’s ‘Opt Outside’, an implicit rejection of Black Friday commerce that reinforced why people should buy them, Sainsbury’s recent ‘One Plate’ to tackle climate change by behaving more sustainably and deliciously, or even our own work for Sage ‘Boss It’, which encourages SME’s to feel confident about the finance side of their business, strong brands know that they must act as navigators and motivators.

This means not waiting for their customers to tell them to change, or a law to be passed, but instead, make a better world possible, however incrementally, by making their actions feel exciting and motivating.

Do that, and they’ll prosper. The brands who finger point, won’t.

Helen Jambunathan

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Social Anthropologist and Associate Insight Director


In 2022, people are reinventing the resolution, centering self-care over self-denial. It’s clear that the ‘new year, new me’ mantra still holds sway - resolutions are just becoming a lot kinder this year. 

For instance, in both the UK and the US, holistic resolutions around ‘improving’ health and happiness have bumped the perennial ‘lose weight’ down the list. The past few weeks have also shown us three innovative ways that people are evolving their resolutions to make them more sustainable.

The first is in ‘old year’s resolutions’ - kickstarting a habit in late-2021 in order to increase the likelihood of follow-through - an approach with roots in positive psychology. Micro-goals are also helping people combat the ambitious ‘fresh start’ in favour of achievable milestones. And on TikTok, Gen Zers are using #2022rebrand to ironically launch an improved ‘character’ for 2022.

What can marketers learn from what these have in common? Irrespective of the actual resolution, people are designing roadmaps to success that feel kinder and more sustainable. None of the above methods are rooted in sudden restriction. And they all account for failure - easing in changes to reduce the likelihood of falling off the wagon, or ditching the idea of a ‘reset’ altogether. 

Brands are also already ditching restrictive messaging for a more encouraging tone. Frito-Lay has been urging people to enjoy what they want, while Calm’s Daily Move decentres ‘fitness’ to promote self-love instead. Positive reinforcement will be the name of the game for marketers when it comes to this shift in January behaviours.

Anthony Magee

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Director of Data and Experience Technology


There is a confluence of trends at play at the moment; rising personal wellbeing concerns from the pandemic, pressure on household incomes from rising costs of living and energy prices, as well as a more widespread acknowledgement of individual changes which can be made to collectively combat the environmental crisis.

Some 61% of the population are now concerned or very concerned about climate change, suggesting a longer term tipping point has been achieved. At the same time, after 18 months plus of restrictions and lockdowns, people are incredibly hungry for real life experiences. Together, these macro trends suggest a wider behavioural shift at play than simply ‘New Year, new you’ financial and health resolutions. While it remains to be seen how sticky these trends become in the long term, we are seeing hopeful positivity amongst consumers and businesses alike at the moment in the face of adversity. Both Forrester Research and our own

Digital Growth survey have highlighted that 2022 consumer behaviours will be driven by a quest for instant happiness, comfort, and positive uplifting experiences. Brands have a tremendous opportunity to align with these aspirations, driving happier interactions as well as forging deeper human connections by nudging positive behaviours along through hyper-relevant campaigns and smart deployment of physical and digital experiences.

Related Tags

Behavioural Change