Agencies Brand Strategy How Do You Solve a Problem Like...

Indie agencies explain how to navigate high interest rates and cost of living crisis


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

June 21, 2023 | 12 min read

As mortgage rates in the UK go up, and the cost of living continues to rise in the US, brands risk seeming out of touch if they don’t work to match the national mood.


Indie agency experts explain how brands can best match their tone to the moment / Unsplash

Interest rates and the cost of living are rising, meaning that consumers are likely to spend less, and perhaps show less optimism in general. How should brands respond?

And how can their agencies help them modulate their tone to match the mood of the times? We ask a clutch of indie agency experts for their advice.

How do you solve a problem like… matching the national mood?

Christi Tronetti, head of growth, M&C Saatchi London: “In our recent study, On The Money, we asked people questions via WhatsApp about the impact of the cost of living crisis on their daily lives. We heard loud and clear that people don't want to see the current economic doom and gloom played back to them in brands' marketing output. Escapism is the order of the day. Brands might not be able to make the situation better, but what they can do is create a small amount of entertainment or levity at a tough time. That’s exactly what we’re aiming to do with clients like Diageo, launching a Backstreet Boys parody for lager brand Rockshore.”

Lauren Hartstone, partner and executive creative director, Sibling Rivalry: “Right now, everyone is feeling the pressure. Prices are up and we cannot expect consumers to respond to campaigns in the same way as they would in a positive economic climate. Context is everything and it's important to meet consumers where they are at. That doesn't mean we should use a negative or sarcastic tone of voice. But it is an opportunity to be more approachable and authentic... less “aspirational.” At Sibling Rivalry, we talk about this a lot. A need to cut through the clutter with realness and humor. Everyone has been through so much — a little joy, laughter, and awareness goes a long way.“

Anthony Sanchez, creative strategist, The Romans NY: “When times are bleak, brands don’t need to be emo. Consumers look to companies they engage with to bring joy, bring levity, and bring release from the daily grind.

“Marketing teams should craft creative campaigns rooted in positivity, empathy, and humor that stay true to the brand’s ethos. Because really, consumers don't want brands to hold a mirror to their faces and show them how gloomy the times are. They want to be shown there are still things worth celebrating. Things worth treating themselves to.”

Kirsty Hathaway, executive creative director, Joan London: “Matching the national mood is just pantomime. Nobody wants an echo. Instead, be yourself wholly. The audience respects authenticity, and brands can provide people with a form of escapism. There’s a reason platforms such as TikTok have been so popular over the past few years – offering an outlet for consumers to be entertained rather than bombarded with doom and gloom.“

Nimi Raja, strategy and development partner, Rankin Creative: “Brands aren't people, of course - however human the attributes we build into them, they don't experience emotions and the only place they feel the national mood is in their bottom line. But they can be personas, and in the same way that a well-timed appearance by a Joan Collins or Miriam Margolyes can transport us to happier places, the brands who step up to show their best selves can be a source of brightness in the doom and gloom. So I’d rather see brands leading the way by lifting the nation’s spirits, rather than overstepping their role by pretending too hard that they feel its pain.”

Richard Exon, founder, Joint: “The certainty of yet more Bank of England interest rate hikes impacts very unevenly indeed. Great news for older, wealthier people with savings and no mortgage. This a disaster for middle-income earners still paying off their home loans or facing rent hikes from buy-to-let landlords. At times of crisis, there are three Cs that can help brands guide their communications.

“First, be Considerate by minding your tone and recognizing the context you are operating in. Second, be Consistent by sticking to the values and personality you are known for. When people are worried, they have zero tolerance for inauthenticity. Most importantly, be Creative. Emotionally impactful ideas that are well-judged and well-timed are unbeatable. Especially when times are tough.”

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Kev Chesters, strategy partner, Harbour: “You don’t make people less gloomy by being gloomy yourself. Conversely, you don’t stop someone being depressed by telling them to cheer up. It's a balancing act. However, I think the world needs more optimism. More smiles. More lols. If the national mood is gloomy then I’d argue the national need is less gloom. People will thank you for it. How do I know? Every focus group I’ve ever done over 25 years has asked respondents what ads they like or remember. Do you know what the answer always is, without fail? The funny ones. Advertisers should listen to their customers more.”

Wybe Magermans, growth and development director, WMH&I: “As mortgage lenders continue to hike their prices and the economic downturn shows no sign of abating, agencies in search of increasingly creative ways to market brands, are turning to the promotion of ironic consumption. Marketing the ‘lame’, the ‘uncool’, the ‘outdated’ in an ironic way allows consumers to be in on the joke, creating a community around a product. Look at the revival of children’s film Shrek, or the newfound popularity of the ugly shoes, Crocs, so hideous they’re cool. It’s fun, it’s humorous and in these dark economic times, don’t we all need to lighten the mood a little?”

Elissa Pham, vice-president strategic planning director, RPA: “Don’t attempt to match the mood unless your brand can do it in a way that is true to the brand and stands out. A brand can’t be tone-deaf, but it might not need to reflect the mood overtly either. People may be looking for more than empathy from brands in these times – escape, an injection of optimism or helping them solve a problem. Understanding what your audience wants and needs is key.”

Matt McCain, co-founder of Little Hands of Stone: “No matter what’s going in your audience’s world, you have to meet them where they are. If their life is on fire, you can’t pretend it isn’t. If they’re not in love with your product, you can’t pretend that they are. That said, as long as you’re acknowledging your audience’s current reality, you can do so in any manner of tone. Being lighthearted while giving a nod to darker times can be incredibly effective and win skeptics over. I would argue that being too Hallmark-y and “times sure are tough aren’t they, friend” comes off as patronizing and slimy. Live in reality, but don’t tie yourselves in knots to match its tone. Just be genuine.”

Victoria Jordan, general manager, branded content and creative, My Code: “Brands have the power to counter a national narrative. Be in constant conversation with your audience. Truly listen to what they’re feeling and dealing with and take a clear stance on the issues they care about and stand by it. That can mean authentically depicting their lifestyle or offering tangible solutions that benefit them in their current situations. Do the work to build campaigns that make them feel authentically seen, heard and understood. It can have a positive impact on the national mood and build affinity for your brand at the same time.”

Dan Hocking, chief operating officer, Trouble Maker: “Brands need to be careful to not confuse showing empathy – which is essential – with matching the mood of the nation. Consumers are still coming across much of our communication in the channels they’re engaging with to avoid the realities of what it may be like out there – to be entertained largely. So, while we can’t pretend blindly that everything is positive, we can certainly continue to play our role in lifting their mood in whatever the relevant brands’ unique way may be – like Peroni demonstrating that you can find escapism in the everyday in their Capri product launch.”

Alec Tooze, senior strategist, Impero: “Take the national mood into account, absolutely, but ‘matching’ wouldn’t be my choice of verb. Much of the standout work from the 2008 financial crisis and Covid wasn’t work that mirrored the world around us but work that helped us feel good, entertained us, and provided a break from it (let’s not forget System1’s findings from Christmas 2020). If you can’t save people money, don’t try to. Take it as an opportunity to force long-term thinking—what can we do now to give us the best start when things pick up again? And maybe the answer is being a breath of fresh air in a world that’s already overflowing with gloom.”

Nicola Davies, head of strategy, Exposure: “Why did TikTok explode in popularity during the pandemic? Why are the Irish famous for their self-deprecating wit? Why is Gen Z humor so weird? Gloomy times call for lols. More than just a welcome distraction, it helps us to cope and build resilience. Humor is the most powerful tool for creative effectiveness, and yet advertising is becoming less funny and less effective. As consumers feel the pinch, they don’t want to see big blockbuster campaigns that feel tone-deaf to the times. But if TikTok has taught us anything, it’s that comedy content can be achieved on a shoestring. It’s time we take laughter more seriously.”

Is your agency taking a different approach? If so, let me know. My email is

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