The Great Awakening
“Want to wear the red socks or the green socks?”
As anyone who’s lived with a toddler knows, providing a semblance of choice, albeit limited and constrained, helps create a feeling of control and helps young children to feel empowered.
We all want free choice in our lives. But the past year erased so much of this, with forced limitations around how we work, socialise, educate, live — and die. Research shows that, when faced with stressful situations, it is important to feel some level of control: “Powerlessness is inherently threatening, and it prompts a strong desire to reduce or eliminate that feeling,” says Eric Anicich, assistant professor of management and organisation at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.
While so much lately has felt beyond our control, we’ve focused on where we can still exert choice. As a result, for many this year has been a great reckoning — the feeling that ‘life is short’ and YOLO, with a reconsideration of possibilities and choices. Until 2020, many of us made decisions based on what society expects, so we sleepwalked through life and did what we believed was expected. But a year breaking from the norm has awakened many to a world of new possibilities.
From massive achievements like the creation of a vaccine in record time to changing to remote work overnight, to home schooling and new career options — we’ve seen that we can pivot and make it work. And in doing so, we’ve gained confidence in our abilities to choose what is right for us. As Christina Wallace, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, says, “We’ve all had a year to evaluate if the life we’re living is the one we want to be living.”
Whether deciding to live a child-free life, creating a hybrid portfolio approach to life and work, or moving to the countryside, we are taking greater control of our lives. People are increasingly no longer living the lives society “expects” them to live, but they are making decisions based on what is right for them. This isn’t about being selfish regarding the community or the environment. In fact, for many, it’s about using less and being more mindful about the way we live. It is about challenging the status quo, questioning why we do things a certain way, learning more and being more open to new approaches.
This great awakening is a call to marketers to rethink how we speak to, and reach, consumers. It brings new opportunities to help people live in the moment, to enable and empower them to try something new.
But despite this increasing openness to the new, there remains a continued need for reassurance. Our Brand Asset Valuator (BAV) research last spring, ‘Emerging Stronger,’ demonstrated how, during a crisis, consumers find comfort in the familiar, and brands that bring stability, value or joy resonate the most. Through the worst days of the pandemic, it was not surprising to see the longing for the familiar and nostalgic — and some of this is likely to remain. BAV data showed that, following previous crises and recessions, brands that were associated with being down-to-earth, trustworthy, reliable, friendly, caring about customers, and helpful, were those that increased in their power to drive usage and consideration.
As we emerge from these troubled times, and as people make seemingly unexpected choices, brands have an opportunity to provide people with a feeling of choice and control, while also providing reassurance. As such, now would be an opportune time to create brand extensions of trusted brands and create new brands that help people feel in control, perhaps through ritual, routine, or familiarity — while empowering them to try something new.
These changes could be achieved through new business models. Across a wide range of industries, subscription models have been growing substantially. For example, in Q4 2020, the MyPanera+ Coffee subscription boasted nearly half a million subscribers. New subscription business models from a wide range of known brands will likely develop as people become more comfortable with subscriptions. Brands like Disney have clearly already been big winners here; the expansion of Disney+ already coincided with the desire for at-home entertainment. But the company is also exploring new revenue models, e.g., Premier Access. It’s no surprise that, over the past year, Disney and Disney+ have both substantially moved up the rankings in BAV’s measurement of emotional engagement. More recently, Netflix also leveraged its familiarity and customer base to expand into Netflix.shop, a new site selling apparel and lifestyle products linked to its shows and brand.
As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, the challenge for brands will be to balance these two seemingly opposing desires: to help reassure, and simultaneously embrace, a newfound joie de vivre. For brands that find this sweet spot as the world reboots, out of uncertainty comes opportunity.