Restoring consumer confidence after Covid-19: spiders, Edwina Currie and gold

Kevin Chesters is the incoming partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective and former chief strategy officer of Ogilvy UK.

The Eggs/Salmonella scare of 1988

No one can predict what exactly the world will look like in the aftermath of coronavirus, but we can look to the past for inspiration according to Kevin Chesters.

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning" - Winston Churchill, 10/11/1942

In that quote, Churchill was talking about the battle of El Alamein, but he could easily have been talking about the last week or so in the UK. It certainly seems also that the immediate, acute Covid-19 maelstrom has settled into some form of Zoom-soaked version of normal.

For many brands in many sectors – gyms, cinemas, restaurants, coffee shops – we marketers and agencies are starting to think about the “when” not the “if” of the tentative reopening of the consumer economy.

Whether it will be June, July, September, or Christmas there is starting to be an understanding that businesses in the UK will be reopening in some form, and maybe rather soon.

The planning phase has started as to what this might look like and what we might all do. The question – once the ‘when’ has been answered - that all these brands are asking is what will change in a post-Covid world in terms of customer behaviour?

Will everything change forever? Will everything go back to “normal”? Will everything be some form of hybrid/Goldilocks of a middle ground of everything changing just a little bit?

Now you can drive yourself nuts looking for the answers to those questions. Behavioural science, previous research papers, marketing ‘gurus’, articles in trade mags certainly are, and no one has the answer. Anyone who tells you they have the answer is a liar or charlatan (possibly both). But I think there are some places that we can look for advice on what to do – beyond the usual suspects of 'Advertising in a Recession' papers.

For starters, this isn't a recession (that’s coming soon.) This is a collective trauma. A group scare. A societal shock. A massive knock to our collective confidence in what we relied upon and saw as normal. So, my advice is we treat it as such. Stop looking for the answers in the usual places, these are unusual times.

The key challenge facing all businesses that rely on large groups of people coming together in a shared space is, how do we get people feeling confident again?

No one knows what is going to happen and how quickly consumer confidence will return but my advice would be to not look at examples of ‘consumers’ and look for more examples about human beings in general. That is a more likely place to find the answers. And a more original one too.

Here are five different previous experiences to look at for how to restore confidence based on a more tangential approach.

Overcoming phobias

People are scared, and they are going to be scared for a while. I’d advise you to look at some standard ways of treating things people are scared of and build marketing and communications plans based on them. The way you deal with phobias is a process called Exposure Therapy. Slow and steady. Build up the confidence to reduce the size of the fear. With spiders (the world’s #1 phobia by the numbers) it is Think of Spider/Draw a Spider/Be Near a Spider/Hold a spider.

Think about how you could mirror this process for your cinema, coffee shop, gym, burger bar, etc. It will be about easing people gently back into the collective experience. Don’t try and get people to do too much too quickly. Think about all the things you could do to get them to be less scared in a measured and managed way. Base a post-Covid 19 re-launch plan on a slow and steady re-entry into life as we once knew it.

Societal scares

There have been times before when our whole society was made afraid of something. An interesting one was the Eggs/Salmonella scare of 1988. Cabinet Minister Edwina Currie made an ill-judged remark about salmonella in UK eggs. Society suddenly feared something that had been normal. What happened? Sales instantly fell by 60% and the whole industry nearly went to the wall.

What did the government do to (re)establish confidence? Firstly, the industry acted collectively. This is a good learning. All producers came together to support a campaign ('Eggs Are Safe'), they were decisive and they were transparent. They took a series of actions and made sure everyone knew what actions were being taken. Lessons to learn were to act quickly and decisively to reduce society's fear of the new menace. But it still took 29 years for egg sales in the UK to recover to pre-Edwina levels in 2017.

Those egg lessons were certainly learned and applied during the BSE crisis of the mid-90s. The threat of VCJD was rather minimal (more people are killed by falling coconuts annually than have ever been proven to have died of VCJD since it was diagnosed in 1995) but the size of the threat decimated the beef industry. Again, the industry came together and made sure that the UK knew what was being done & that risk was minimal. Ye it still caused an almighty impact on the industry (25% reduction in sales.)

What we learn from these times when people were scared suddenly of doing things that they had previously done is that people do tend to return to ‘normal’ but only if they are reassured. The BSE lesson was that people can actually be too reassured. The threat was probably over-played and a lot of the measures taken to reassure people probably made them more nervous. The severity of Covid-19 probably means this can’t be the case here but worth taking note of. Maybe just get back to being as normal as possible as quickly as possible. If you’re a gym? Talk about exercise. If you’re a coffee shop? Talk about how much we love coffee. Reassure in the right media, but don’t obsess over it.

Routine interruptions

We have the data to look at for when people have been shocked out of their routines before. People haven’t chosen to disrupt their lives – this was imposed upon them, immediately, brutally and uniformly. In 2014 this happened to Londoners with the tube strikes. Overnight people had to look for and adapt to, a new way to get to work. It only lasted 48 hours but TFL data showed that 5% of people never commuted using the tube again.

We don’t know if Covid-19 will change people’s commuting or working habits forever. It won’t for most, but 2014 showed that it will for a significant number (and that disruption only hit London for less than a week.) Incentives to return, and a reminder of what’s good about their routine will be useful. Perhaps stopping only talking about Covid-19 would be a start. Maybe spend more time talking about how great cinema is, or how much you enjoy a coffee break, or what’s ace about the gym – and less time showing pictures of face masks and empty streets. Humans are creatures of habit – let’s use that to our advantage. The flip side is that there may be potentially 5% of a total target market that are now available for the first time for you to target!

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

I think this is an interesting one to delve into for marketers. Therapists spend a lot of their time either building or rebuilding confidence. After trauma, after loss, after a relationship breakdown. It’s a complicated process but tends to follow the same pattern for treatment. Initial phases are about identifying problematic beliefs and negative patterns, then one moves onto analysing reasons and working on a path to treatment and skills to cope. Then one works on how to apply these mechanisms and reducing the likelihood of relapse. This could work quite well as a pattern for relaunch comms and plans. Think about what people are scared of, work on a plan of action to break those down, and concurrently work out how to avoid backsliding into the scary bit again.

Extreme collective national shock

The other place to dig is in collective societal trauma – things like the first world war and 9/11 for what do people do when they feel collectively threatened or disproportionately scared. This is not about looking at past recessions, but times when the whole of society and what society sees as normal was rudely interrupted for a sustained period. The lessons of the post-first world war were that collective trauma tended to drive people to yearn for things that were safe, certain, familiar, and solid. It’s the reason that people invest in things like gold in times of uncertainty. The unfamiliar makes us crave the familiar – it is the science behind comfort food (reminding us of times when we were safe and things made sense – childhood)

So, if you were thinking of changing your brand name - don’t. If you were thinking of making a massive change to how you came to market - don’t; at least for a few months. If you are a familiar, trusted brand then people will be looking to you, and for you. Society has just had a massive jolt. So, we will take a little time to get over it.

As a society and as a species we do tend to be annoyingly predictable. We will meet again because we are connected and collective creatures. We will tend to go back to doing roughly the same things in roughly the same ways because we are creatures of routine and habit. Behavioural scientists call this latter thing Status Quo Bias – as humans we tend to always backslide to the things we’ve always done. We can’t help it.

(Spoiler: Yes, we will go back to offices. No, we won’t keep having Saturday night Zoom quizzes. Yes, we will end up back in the pub after work on a Friday)

The unanswerable variable right now on things getting back to 'normal' is how much and how soon.

No one can know the answer to that for sure. But we have many non-obvious (but tried and tested) patterns and paths to follow to help us to plot the path back to normality.

I’m no longer scared of spiders, by the way.

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective. He tweets on @hairychesters.

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