Identifying Consumer Tensions to Drive Growth

At the end of 2019, OMD presented a trends deck for 2020. Within this, we distinguished between ‘situational change’ and ‘reality’.

Situational change is born from the advances in politics, economics and technology that shape the world within which we live (and operate as marketeers). We argued that all too often marketeers get excited about the situational change; creating a vision, a desired state, within which is easy to imagine a world that benefits across all parameters.

Instead, the reality is often far less extreme (and too often overlooked). The actual state we find ourselves in is one within which people don’t change as quickly as the world around them, if at all. It’s important to understand that our motivation, behaviours and attitudes rarely vary no matter how compelling the change in our environment.

So far, so obvious. It’s a point eloquently captured by Bill Bernbach’s oft-quoted observations on the “unchanging man”. What is less obvious, however, is that this gap between situational change and reality creates a series of tensions. Tensions between what is possible and what we as humans with all our limitations, will do in reality.

And it is these tensions that we should be most excited about. We believe that not only should brands be actively mitigating for these tensions, but should also be looking to add significant value to consumers by providing ways to help resolve them.

Whilst the prevalence of these tensions has long been a feature of modern life, it’s hard to argue that the acceleration of change in recent years has further widened the gap between what can be done and what is done.

Furthermore, the arrival of COVID-19 with all the disruption it brings will, we believe, create a new wave of tensions. All underpinned by the same challenge of situational change and reality. And, again, we believe that the most exciting opportunity for us as marketers is not only to predict the changes but to find ways to resolve the tensions these changes create.

Prevailing tensions from COVID-19

With the significant disruption COVID-19 brings, we’ve identified four tensions we will explore individually, offering up some thoughts on how brands might look to adjust activity as well as provide value for consumers wherever possible.

1. Social: People have a heightened desire to feel connected, but many are anxious about being around others.

People have claimed they are extremely excited about performing ‘normal’ social activities when they come out of the lockdown. Kantar suggests beauty treatment is most-anticipated, with eating out and attending the cinema second on our wish-list. As social beings, it’s imperative we reconnect socially.

The evidence suggests, however, that high levels of anxiety have created a new set of self-restrictions as we move into the recovery stage. With weekend traffic volumes continuing at lockdown levels in many Chinese cities, as well as deserted cinemas and shopping malls, despite the lifting of restrictions, we can expect this anxiety to continue across a variety of sectors.

Our job as marketeers, then, should be to understand the ways in which we can alleviate this tension between our natural need to socialise on the one hand and our unwillingness to mix on the other. Making products available to people not only when physical movement is restricted but also unlikely is an obvious immediate step.

From a messaging perspective, brands need to develop communications designed to remove anxiety, giving people the confidence to purchase their products and interact within their categories. And, obviously, from a media perspective channel choice needs to be adjusted to account for the significant and nuanced change in movement across the recovery period.

Finally, at a more empathic level, there are many ingenious ways “social” brands can help people satisfy their need to connect, whilst also allowing them to maintain their distance.

2. Economic: People are under increasing economic pressure, but they also want to reward themselves as they come out of lockdown.

Many people have and will be negatively impacted by the economic downturn associated with the health crisis. In the EU alone, 59 million jobs are at risk from permanent cutbacks, which will result in a natural inclination to reduce spending and adopt a more thrifty mindset.

However, at the same time, people have a desire to reward themselves and to feel a sense of control over this new reality. An urge to splurge is a natural reaction to cope with the restrictions and the uncertainty; examples range from pre-pandemic panic buying, to the increase in high-end consumers’ spend post-lockdown.

We expect the impact of this economic tension to create a series of new spending dynamics both between and within categories. Increasingly we will see spend shift from one category to another. Research in the US suggests 25% of people are going to spend their vacation funds elsewhere. An obvious implication is the need for marketeers to consider capitalising for or mitigating against these shifts in demand.

As well as looking at new sources of demand, understanding how the customer journey is likely to be distorted for each category will become increasingly important. Brands should look to refocus marketing efforts as awareness and consideration phases will likely be prolonged as cash-strapped consumers spend more time deliberating their purchases. In turn messaging and media should be reconsidered accordingly.

3. Attitudinal: Consumers want to try new things, but also stick to what’s familiar.

Historically, major life events have been shown to have an effect on people’s priorities, values and also preferences for products and brands. As alluded to previously, we can expect some sections of society to try new things as a result of their individual economic pressures or social drivers.

However, prolonged periods of uncertainty also result in a need to return to the familiar. People are both trying new things and new ways of living while at the same time rediscovering old passions and finding shelter in the effects of nostalgia – Spotify’s data demonstrates an increase in playlists from the 60s, 70s and 80s, which highlights this trend perfectly.

Businesses, therefore, have a considerable opportunity and challenge in finding the right balance between attracting new consumers and maintaining existing customers. As consumers are increasingly likely to change long-held habits and preferences, how are brands readying themselves to capitalise on new acquisition opportunities or account for a greater need for retention activities amongst existing customers?

For portfolio owners, there is the interesting challenge about which products to prioritise in spend or messaging. For instance, which audiences would be most receptive to switching to a new, innovative product, as opposed to those who would be most receptive to one of the more trusted, heritage brands within the portfolio.

4. Habitual: People want to go back to certain known routines but, at the same time, are embracing the new rhythms of life of the lockdown.

Government-enforced restrictions meant that people have had to abruptly change their habits, and now are longing to go back to their old routines. However, as we are creatures of habit, the disruption to our usual routines has forced us to find new ones.

Many of us have adapted to new working patterns, new forms of entertainment and communication that have, in turn, initiated new consumption habits. Some of these changes have merely accelerated pre-existing trends, but some have completely revolutionised what we thought was once normal.

Although it’s still early to predict long term behavioural shifts, we can expect considerable changes to take place not only in the immediate future but in the months and years to come. There will be considerable value for brands that are able to identify which changes in behaviour will most impact their businesses (both in the short- and long-term), creating products and services that cater for new needs and habits.

In addition, nimble investment plans should allow brands to benefit from volatile trading landscapes transformed by seismic shifts in media consumption patterns.

Key takeouts

  1. Social tension: People have a heightened desire to go out and be social BUT have anxiety about being around other people.
  2. Economic tension: People are under increasing economic pressure BUT want to reward themselves as they come out of the lockdown.
  3. Attitudinal tension: People will want to try new things BUT will also want to stick to what they know.
  4. Habitual tension: People want to go back to certain knownroutines BUT are embracing new rhythms in our lives.

Next steps

Understand how these tensions apply to your category and/or brand, and plan to mitigate against them or leverage accordingly.

This article was authored by Tim Denyer, Emma Ramsay, Mark Murray Jones and Silvia Brunetti, and was first published on

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