How brands should communicate during the cost-of-living crisis

Showing empathy for customers is more important than ever as the UK staggers into a cost-of-living squeeze and likely recession. Brand experts weigh in on how businesses should approach communicating during difficult economic times

It would appear, at first glance, that there should be nothing easier to sell during a pandemic than disinfectant. So, Dettol’s marketing team may have been surprised by a furious backlash to an advert the sanitiser brand ran on the London Underground in September 2020. 

Intended as a warm evocation of the joys of office life, with lines that spoke of ‘the boss’s jokes’ and ‘plastic plants’, the McCann-created ad was instead widely derided. Workers who weren’t quite ready to give up the remote work lifestyle saw it as underlining their decision to stay home, while others interpreted it as a government-sponsored attempt to chide employees back to their desks. 

While the furore might not have dented Dettol’s bottom line – parent company Reckitt Benckiser reported record sales that year – it illustrates how vital it is for brands to get both the tone and wording of their messages right during a crisis. 

That will be top of mind again for many businesses as the UK lurches into another difficult winter. Spiralling energy prices, inflation at a four-decade high and the looming threat of a recession have sent consumer confidence plunging to record lows. With three-quarters of British people reporting they are worried about the cost-of-living crisis, it is something few businesses or industries can ignore.

“I can’t think of a single client who isn’t in some way asking what they should be doing about this,” says Lucy Jameson, founder of creative agency Uncommon, which works with companies from ITV to British Airways. “We’ve got briefs for January already and we’re all trying to figure out if everyone’s going to be suicidal.”

Reading the public mood correctly and responding with empathy, not condescension, will be vital. That is easier said than done, of course – so how are marketing experts planning to navigate the choppy waters ahead?

Actions speak louder than words 

Katie Vanhoutte, head of strategy at FutureBrand Paris, stresses that empathy should not be used as a comms tool. Instead, brands should approach consumers as people first and find ways to meet their needs. “It’s a precarious moment but it’s also a huge moment of opportunity to step up and show meaningful action.”

Jameson agrees that businesses that can point to concrete measures they are taking to improve people’s lives will fare better. “Find something interesting to do that is useful for people and then advertise that.”

Many brands adopted this strategy during the pandemic. Jameson points to Uncommon’s work with Brewdog, when the beer company used some of its distilleries to produce hand sanitiser during the pandemic, which was then given away for free. Another client, ethical cleaning product maker Ecover, set up a fund to invest excess profits into green innovators.

Other examples include Tesco’s adverts that guided customers through the new rules of socially-distanced shopping during the first lockdown. 

It’s a precarious moment but it’s also a huge moment of opportunity to step up and show meaningful action

Looking further back, Hyundai boosted sales amid the 2008 financial crisis by launching a programme to take back licenced cars from customers who lost their jobs. Today, this approach looks like Asda’s relaunched Just Essentials budget range, or Ikea selling children’s meals for 95p at its in-store cafes. 

However, brands should avoid telling customers what to do – especially if their business is on the front lines of the crisis. Vanhoutte says energy suppliers telling struggling billpayers to “put on an extra jumper and turn down their thermostats” is unlikely to land well. “Anything [energy companies] say that’s not extremely self-aware and extremely humble, might be misconstrued and will sound inauthentic.”

Ensuring consistency between words and deeds is also vital for businesses in their roles as employers. There is more public awareness than ever before of how companies treat their workers. That means the likes of below-inflation pay offers, unfair executive bonuses and impersonal mass layoffs via Zoom will all be noted by customers - and the negative fallout from such decisions could linger for longer than the inflation crisis.

Creativity is more important than ever

If there is one thing brands can learn from Covid, it is that empathy cannot be a tone of voice or message in itself. During the first lockdown, businesses from Samsung to Heineken released eerily similar adverts featuring soft piano music, shots of empty streets and sombre, yet hopeful, voiceovers. 

According to David Stevens, executive strategy director at branding agency Wolff Olins, “That po-faced tone of ‘we’re all in this together’ immediately became patronising.”

“It was one giant blob of an ad,” laughs Sarah King, global head of brand strategy at Kantar’s insights division. “Brands ceased to be distinctive. If you’re going to force yourself into someone’s attention, you owe them either something really useful or really entertaining.”

Experts agree people may soon tire of hearing about ongoing crises, looking instead for escapism and a sense of fun. The number of British people who say they avoid the news because it puts them in a negative mood has doubled over the past five years to almost half of consumers.

“I do think people need a bit of joy and hope and optimism. Otherwise, it all gets very, very bleak,” says Jameson. “By the time the fifth advertiser says, ‘we hear you, that’s why we’re holding our prices at last years’ level’, we’re going to have tuned out.”

Even if a brand does not have a vast marketing budget, it can invest in creativity, she adds. “Do something clever, or surprising, make people laugh. Find a way to have some humour if that is right for your brand.”

Stevens believes there might even be a move towards hedonism and a “fuck this” feeling from certain businesses. “I’m keen to see if brands go the other way and try to help people feel like there is still fun to be had. There are still good times ahead. There’s been a long hard road and there is light at the end of the tunnel – and there are ways to forget, enjoy and go a bit more celebratory, fun and hedonistic.”

Don’t stop communicating

Businesses might be tempted to cut costs by slashing marketing budgets, while it might feel queasy to sell, sell, sell as households rein in spending. However, King says communicating should be seen as an investment, not an expense. “There is mountains of evidence that brands which invest in recessions come out stronger and ready for the upturn. If you continue to do quality communications, you’re building your brand even when the opportunity for the immediate sale may not be as obvious.”

An often-cited MarketSense study found that US brands that invested in advertising during the 1989-91 recession emerged stronger than those which cut back. Even during the height of the Covid pandemic, just 6% of people thought businesses should stop advertising, according to Kantar research. One theory goes that familiar brands can provide a much-needed sense of normality during unstable times, King says.

There is a risk to inaction, too. Jameson says British Gas developed a “fat cat” reputation during the 1990s that took nearly a decade to shift. “They let it get out of control and they didn’t manage the narrative.”

Whatever brands do say should stay true to their purpose and voice. “Uncertain times are not the time to be changing your purpose. It’s really about doubling down on what value you bring to people’s lives and how you earn your place,” advises Vanhoutte. 

When there are hard things to say, she believes people would rather hear that businesses are working on fixing them, even if they do not have a magic solution. “Covid has changed the game: consumers and employees are expecting a lot more honesty from brands.”