Pleasure in progress: The dopamine deficit

Murillo Meireles, Planner at Missouri explores the split in the market between hedonistic and restrained consumer behaviour, and what brands can do to win their custom and loyalty.

Murillo Meireles

Planner Missouri


It was just over 100 years ago that the world started to recover from 1918-20 Spanish Flu, one of history's deadliest epidemics, which was preceded by one of history’s deadliest wars, WW1.

That prolonged period of hardship was the main cause of some major shifts in consumer behaviour. One of these being the total embrace of freedom that marked the Roaring 20s.

As we start to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, the parallels between what happened then and what’s about to happen becomes clear.

It’s been a painful period for everyone. But pain and pleasure are intertwined; this link is deeply rooted in our biology. For a start, the nervous system releases endorphins as a way of blocking pain. This endorphin activity leads to an increase in the production of dopamine.

Therefore, after a year of pain, it’s only natural that we now eagerly anticipate pleasure. Our collective dopamine deficit is palpable. The world is in need of a good time.

However, we see two different social realities emerging as restrictions are finally lifted.

In the first, a significant part of our society will actively reject any constraint to their personal freedom. In the other, there will be a cohort for whom lockdown created a permanent shift in behaviour, causing them to hold onto newly acquired habits.

It seems that everything is set for a split in the market between hedonistic and restrained consumer behaviour. Below, you’ll find four key insights, and what your brand can to do to win their custom and their loyalty.

Provide consumers with the information they need to feel in control.

Murillo Meireles

1) The serious business of pleasure  

After a year of heightened anxiety and suffocating restrictions, the desire to let loose is widespread. Many consumers will be prone to indulge in instant gratification without giving too much thought to the implications of their decisions.

For many, pre-pandemic priorities such as sustainability and diversity will take a back seat for a while. They have already started to show signs that they want to shake off, at least temporarily, worries and responsibilities.

They’re ready to say Adios! to fakeaways and Zoom parties and Hola! to nightclubs in Ibiza. They want to escape. And when they do, they don’t want to stress about anything, least of all money.

As many as 32% of consumers globally claim they expect to increase their spending when drinking and eating out friends, compared to before the lockdowns. (Source: Nestle)

Opportunity: Facilitate the consumer to escape from the worries and responsibilities of the real world. Consumption of your product should feel like the ultimate reward.

2) Adventures in pleasure

If at the height of the pandemic consumers were buying heritage brands they could trust, once that uncertainty is over, we expect them to deliberately throw caution to the wind and seek opportunities to step out of their comfort zone.

Many consumers have caution fatigue, and what they want now is to break the rules and try something new. They want the excitement of newness after a year of sameness.

In the UK, as many as 83% of consumers now say they plan to ditch at least some of the shopping habits they’ve acquired during the pandemic after this is over. (Source: ONS)

Opportunity: Encourage discovery. Facilitate an exploration of new flavour combinations, unfamiliar destinations and experiences that take consumers out of their ordinary.

3) The pleasure of learning

By contrast, there’s going to be a whole other segment of the consumer landscape that will hold on to what they see as positive aspects of isolation. They’re going to come out on the other side of this crisis with newfound passions, and as a result, they’ll spend more of their time and money on hobbies and personal development.

According to a recent UK study conducted by The Health Work Company, 22% of people in the UK had taken up a new pastime in lockdown, while 35% had rediscovered an old one.

As they come out of isolation eager to reignite their social life off-screen, we’ll continue to see them prioritise products and experiences that come with an element of self-discovery or self-reflection. For these consumers, pleasure now lies in the fulfilment of their own potential, in self-actualising. 

Opportunity: Put learning at the heart of your product experience. Create opportunities for consumers to hone their skills or acquire new ones. Facilitate them to learn from your brand, or from a collective sense of progress.

4) Pleasure in moderation

The events of the last year have also made some consumers eager to take matters into their own hands. This is especially true in relation to their personal wellbeing both mental and physical.

In the UK, news shows have recorded their lowest ratings in 2020, with more people choosing to stop following the news in order to protect their mental health (Source: BBC).

As for physical wellbeing, consumers are taking control by reassessing their relationship with food and drink to establish what’s good for them and what’s not.

They’ve learned that the way they feel is up to no one but themselves. Now, they’ll continue to seek less harmful ways to indulge and boost their wellbeing. For them, pleasure comes from taking control.

Opportunity: Provide consumers with the information they need to feel in control. Facilitate them to make the right choices and indulge guilt-free. Tap into ingredients and products that provide physical and mental health benefits, allowing them to make considered choices and put them in the driving seat of their desires.

Guest Author

Murillo Meireles

Planner Missouri


Joining Missouri four years ago, Murillo heads up the agency’s strategy department. Murillo is the mastermind behind building and developing client strategies, working closely with both the account and creative teams. His experience spans over multiple sectors, from F&B to education to sport. Murillo is also heavily involved in writing insights and trends reports, and is the primary copy writer for the agencies bi-annual publication, Show Me.