hallway of a mall
From emotion-driven trends in spending to a focus on the active ways businesses are handling the crisis, Yarrow details the current state of the consumer psyche during COVID-19. — Getty Images/serts

Tone-deaf marketing messages that fail to read the room — like a wool-themed fashion email blast hitting inboxes during a September heat wave — will fall flat no matter the socio-economic climate.

But during a global health and financial-solvency crisis like COVID-19, they will sound like nails on a chalkboard to consumers, threatening to imperil a company’s brand equity long after the dark days have passed.

While the coronavirus and a world placed on a pandemic-imposed pause feels unprecedented in its direness and global impact, the consumer mindset during times of great crisis tends to follow a pattern, Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist, who’s counted brands from GE and Del Monte to Westfield malls among her clients, told CO—. “Everybody is going through the [buying] decision-making process with another layer of emotionality,” she said. So, “they’re more irrational than ever before.”

To meet consumers in the current moment, small businesses to Fortune 500 companies face the tricky-yet-necessary task of being of service without being self-serving; replacing pure selling with meaningful, other-oriented storytelling; and rather than touting their generosity of spirit, demonstrating it, Yarrow said.

What’s more, businesses that recognize that connectedness is “a human imperative” and adapt accordingly, will strike a more resonant chord with consumers and stoke their loyalty long term, she said.

I think this crisis will shift the pendulum back towards recognizing expertise and artistry in all areas of business.

Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist

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Peering into the consumer mindset in crisis mode: ‘irrational’ and comfort-seeking

No matter the external factors at play, all consumer purchasing decisions are “shrouded in emotions, which influence everything we buy, whether we know it or not,” Yarrow said. In the consumer psyche, that emotional dimension intensifies during a crisis, and amid COVID-19, “consumers are not making decisions in a rational fashion,” she said.

The result is a trio of buying states: panic-buying evidenced by the mad rush on toilet paper that ensued; “social buying,” whereby shoppers grab what everyone else seems to be scooping up; and “frozen buying,” which finds consumers retreating from buying altogether, paralyzed by fears like, “‘my 401k looks pretty bleak; I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job,’” Yarrow said.

It’s precisely in these heightened emotional states, though, that businesses have an unprecedented opportunity to build rapport with consumers, she said. That’s because “when people feel wounded and fearful, we very naturally look for allies.” Hence, she continued, “For the businesses that look warm and generous and caring during this crisis … rather than impersonal and bureaucratic, there’s truly an opportunity to have longer term, deeper relationship with consumers.”

Showing, not telling: ‘What businesses do now is more important than what they say’

Conscious capitalism has been moving from the margins to the mainstream in recent years as consumers increasingly vote with their dollars for companies and brands that align with their values and belief systems. The crisis has only hastened that drift.

It’s especially true that “what businesses do now is more important than what they say,” Yarrow said. Consumers are making a mental note of companies that are acting in the best interest of their employees, like businesses that are reassuring workers that no one is getting fired.

Fostering good will in a crisis will sometimes mean offering something for nothing. Fashion companies from Prada to Eddie Bauer are shifting production to make masks critically needed for medical workers, just as Hertz is renting vehicles sitting idle to healthcare workers for free.

“These are the sort of things people are going to [want to] hear,” she said.

 kit yarrow headshot
Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist. — Kit Yarrow

Forgetting ‘phony’ heroes and celebrating everyday ones on the frontline

In the grips of this crisis, a shift appears to be bubbling in the consumers’ collective psyche, Yarrow said. They’re pivoting away from worshiping false gods.

“We have a big, huge shift away from [exalting] phony actors and authorities, and towards those around us — the truck drivers, teachers, nurses, employees showing up to work,” she said “Suddenly, our interest [has shifted] from what these superficial big shots are doing to the people around us making our lives and businesses [better].”

Now is the time for companies to champion their employee heroes, she said, and an easy way to do so is to spotlight and celebrate workers on social media. “Here’s Bob delivering your groceries, here’s Nancy in pediatrics working in the hospital — she’s showing up for us … while the rest of us are quarantining ourselves,” Yarrow said.

Sam's Club thanks its "retail hero" employees by calling out workers by name and store location, showcasing gratitude for playing their part while in crisis mode. — Sam's Club

Sam’s Club is doing just that. A new TV spot from the warehouse club celebrates its “retail heroes,” showing employees in its stores and warehouses stocking shelves, disinfecting cart handles and loading orders into cars, calling out workers by name and store location to thank them, as “The Weight” by The Band plays on.

“They are our frontline army,” Yarrow said. “They are our heroes.”

The re-appreciation of expertise and craft

The pandemic has nudged one mini-trend, Yarrow said.

Consumers have been humbled by a disease “that is so mysterious and out of the normal person’s grasp and understanding. That will only facilitate our love of science, as well as [an appreciation] for companies with a level of expertise that average people don’t have” — so businesses should leverage that, she said.

That appreciation reflects a reversal of sorts, as “we have become a society of know-it-alls — we can make our own soap,” Yarrow said. “Consumers think they can do everything a business can do. I think this crisis will shift the pendulum back towards recognizing expertise and artistry in all areas of business.”

“We are so hungry for things we can trust,” she said. “This is an opportunity for businesses.”

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Published March 31, 2020