Brand Purpose Food & Drink Brand Strategy

Brands need to show a ‘human face’ as the cost of living skyrockets

By Will Lion

March 9, 2022 | 5 min read

The living-cost crisis shows no sign of easing. In January energy bills rocketed, and last month staple food items shot up by 45%, driven by inflation. With oil prices soaring, petrol and diesel prices now stand at record highs, and the conflict in Ukraine is set to push prices even higher. Will Lion and Simon Gregory, joint chief strategy officers at BBH London, explore how brands can own this crisis and have a “human face.”

How can brands help consumers through the energy crisis

How can brands help consumers through the energy crisis? / Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

It’s no surprise, then, that 2022 has been dubbed ‘the year of the squeeze’; from stagnating wages that have failed to rise in line with inflation, to the spiraling costs of consumer goods (everything from food and clothes to transportation, heating and energy), not to mention increased National Insurance (NI) for working people and businesses.

The UK’s cost-of-living crisis has seen the consumer price index rising to 5.4%: the highest level for 30 years. Soaring energy bills have left people making a choice between ‘eating and heating,’ while costs are to soar even further this Easter by a whopping 51%; a situation that will disproportionately affect those on the lowest incomes. Meanwhile, in a perfect storm, Brexit has increased shipping and importing costs. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

Regardless of what the government could and should be doing to tackle these numerous crises, not least by scrapping the NI rise and cutting VAT on fuel to tackle fuel cost rises, what are brands actually doing about this? Deeply misguided stunts aside (E.On’s attempt to encourage cash-strapped consumers to turn down their heating and lower their carbon footprint by sending them a pair of socks comes to mind), we’ve barely seen any communication from companies to consumers explaining exactly why prices are going up – or, at the very least, any meaningful messaging sympathizing with their plight. Where’s the messaging that they are there to help ordinary working people through this crisis?

The truth is, brands have to take the long-term view in moments like this. And it’s deeds, rather than words, that are going to really cut through now and over the months to come. Brands have to show that they’re the good guys. That means holding on to price, investing in the brand and building lasting added value propositions and offers.

Price and promotion can be a hugely effective lever, the latter in particular. Perhaps existing, loyal customers could be rewarded with lower-priced services or goods? This is a time when your marketing, commercial and sales teams should be linked up, if they aren’t already. Understanding how you can package price cuts, combos and one-offs is crucial – and a creatively interesting challenge. The Tesco Finest* £10 Dinner for Two promotion is a great example of this.

You needn’t look far to find companies that boomed during a crisis. Think of FedEx, which pumped money into a hugely successful ad campaign tagline ‘when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight’ during the 1970s oil crisis. Or hand sanitizer companies, Netflix and Zoom, all of which benefited in their different ways from the global pandemic. Meanwhile, Microsoft won many hearts and minds during 2020 by offering free skills training for those who had lost their jobs in the pandemic. Similarly, Barclays’s Digital Eagles offer online training and support, and their Money Mentors provide free financial advice.

Always, we need to get fully under the skin of real people. How are they feeling, day in, day out? Once we have the data on that, we can be more precise about the role brands can play and the when and how of marketing products and services. Brands have to actively put money into people’s pockets to help them survive the cost-of-living crisis. They need to show they have a human face – not send them pairs of socks through the post.

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