Society Anxiety

After unexpected events consumers become anxious, but it is predictable and marketers can use it to their advantage.

By Franky Farmer, Strategy Director

Last month Exponential shared their research “Consumers In An Age of Anxiety”. A piece of research fuelled by Big Data, what an interesting couple of hours it was! Their key point was that:

“After an unexpected event, consumers become anxious in a predictable way.”

It’s worth noting that anxiety is different to stress. Stress is a conscious feeling, if we think about it long enough, we can probably figure out the source. However, anxiety is subconscious. It’s when there’s something making us feel uneasy but we can’t quite put our finger on what’s causing it.

We’re all walking around with a certain level of anxiety and when it tips over, that’s when we become aware of it. But it’s always there at some level, even when we don’t realise it – and is powerful enough to affect our daily decisions in ways we aren’t aware of.

We can all agree that there have been a few “unexpected events” in the last couple of years, the biggest amongst them being Trump and Brexit. This gave Exponential’s research team the perfect opportunity to investigate how consumer behaviour changed following these events, triggered by their anxiety.

The interesting thing about Brexit is that it’s not a one-off, unexpected event like the U.S election. It’s an ongoing series of unexpected events and our levels of anxiety are riding the peaks and troughs of the Brexit roller-coaster. (What fun!) Whether that’s the latest headline from Brussels saying we’ll definitely be footing that £52bn divorce bill or arriving at Tesco to find no Marmite on the shelf.

Well, buckle in for the next wave of anxiety! The election hasn’t failed to deliver in the anxiety stakes: a hung parliament, talk of yet another general election, calls for the PM to resign. All factors driving uncertainty and therefore anxiety. As the Brexit negotiations begin in earnest in the next week, we will see consumers’ anxiety levels continue to peak and trough as each new headline rolls out of the tussle in Brussels … and carries on for the next TWO YEARS!!!

So what are the predictable ways that consumers behave when they’re anxious? And what can marketers do to alleviate this anxiety, whilst at the same time sell product?

1)     Approach vs Avoid

Anxious consumers are likely to approach controllable aspects of life and avoid larger, more uncontrollable aspects.

The research showed that post Brexit there was an increased interest in areas such as product reviews and cleaning products, but decreased interest in environmental concerns and crime.

This is because when people are anxious they are drawn towards areas that help them feel like they can take control of their lives. So people wanted to control their own personal environments (making sure they have a clean house) as well as read information on products, making them feel like they’re in control, with as much information as possible before committing to a purchase. They became less interested in macro topics that they didn’t feel they had control over such as the environment and crime.

What this means for marketing

Stressed people want empathy (they want their anger to be heard) but anxious people want clear direction and information to allay their worries.

In order to meet the anxious consumer’s needs, marketers should focus on giving consumers information to empower them to make informed decisions, thus taking control.

If you have a product that helps consumers take control of their lives (for example a beauty brand or financial services company), even better. At times of anxiety, dial up the control factor in your messaging and consider up-weighting your communications.

2)     Narrowed Perception

When consumers are anxious, their perception is narrowed, meaning they consider fewer choices, make faster decisions, and demonstrate a bias towards habit. They feel emotionally under siege, meaning they don’t have the capacity to think broadly.

Post Brexit, interest in topics such as marriage/divorce, mobile phone plans and fashion trends decreased, demonstrating how people weren’t thinking broadly and far ahead but instead were just focusing on the here and now.

What this means for marketing

At times of anxiety focus on delivering messages about your product in moments when the consumer needs them most because they’ve got a narrowed perception, they’re living in the moment and don’t have the scope to be thinking about your product at other times. For example, if you’re a weed killer company, focus on those moments when your audience are likely to be out, sitting in their garden.

In summary, Society Anxiety is here to stay and at UM we’ve certainly found Exponential’s research both interesting and implementable when it comes to strategically planning our clients’ communications.


This article was first published as part of the LinkedIn Agency Voices series here

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