How PR can help to change consumer behaviour during crisis

by | Aug 21, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

When the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, no one could have anticipated the devastation it would cause. In the face of prolonged economic disruption, businesses have had to remain resilient and show agility to adapt and survive.

A silver lining: as the UK economy continues to gradually reopen, opportunities have emerged for businesses to capitalise on new trends in consumer behaviour—some of which have been gaining momentum for years already.

Before the pandemic, only 7-8 percent of the grocery shopping market was done online, according to a recent consumer report. However, Kantar has revealed an increase to 11.5 percent. Although driven by necessity, this change may be here to stay as older consumers in particular have become more accustomed to ecommerce: Mintel found that 37 percent of over-65s now do more online shopping. Post-lockdown, retailers who can quite literally ‘feed’ this consumer habit and cement their reputation as leading ecommerce services, will shape the future and lead it too.

Similarly, the automotive sector has also been disrupted by the pandemic with car sales falling drastically. Despite this, challenger brands that offer cleaner, greener, electric alternatives have been presented an opportunity to reach more environmentally conscious consumers, who have been confronted their carbon footprint. Tesla defied a 97 percent slump in the automotive market, to record strong sales of its Model 3, accounting for 15 percent of all sales in the UK—April’s best-selling new car.

Meanwhile, the popularity of home fitness workouts has also gathered pace as Covid-19 forced us to exercise indoors. Joe Wicks and other fitness influencers gained huge followings and global fitness brand, Les Mills also saw a 900 percent increase in sign-ups for its home workout sessions, potentially shaking up the sector forever.

Digitisation, home delivery and sustainability trends have been accelerated by the spread of the virus, and brands brave enough to commit investment and resources to them can reap the rewards by keeping these new consumer habits in the media spotlight, and driving conversation around it.

Communicating effectively in a crisis

Marketing budgets have been stripped back significantly since the start of the pandemic, with 62 percent of marketers changing their strategies and 90 percent either delaying or reviewing budgets.

This is hardly surprising in a crisis, but marketers should heed lessons from the past. A 2009 Journal of Advertising study revealed how Procter & Gamble increased marketing spend during the Great Depression of 1929 and went on to dominate the market, while others shied away from the risky opportunity. The brand is now worth $230bn.

Restricting marketing budgets in times of crisis is a necessary and understandable response, but for those who can afford not to, doing the opposite may have significant long term benefits. By maintaining brand equity and share of voice through challenging times, brands can bounce back quicker and more productively, keeping their products or services fresh in the consumer’s mind. Those who remain silent may be dealing their business a fatal blow and could find themselves simply having to spend more to regain the brand awareness lost.

PR as a tool to create and shape trends

Communicating effectively with your customer base is crucial and the current crisis means there are plenty of opportunities to do so. As we grew increasingly isolated, media consumption rose steeply. Brits are continuing to consume more and more news and content from social media and broadcast to online and print news, with a Censuswide poll revealing almost half (48 percent) of us are reading publications more than usual. Radio has also seen listenership soar by 22 percent.

More than ever, consumers want to stay informed and are looking to trusted brands and spokespeople for reassurance. By using PR to profile your business as an industry leader showing confidence when others aren’t, you can gain a competitive advantage.

Consumers are also craving escapism, and brands able to successfully capture this with a creative streak, a sense of humour (if appropriate) and innovative creative can catch the imagination of the consumer. With informative, aspirational and engaging social media content, and a powerful, opinion-led voice on the burning issues concerning consumers, brands can play a pivotal role in shaping the national mood.

While taking such a positive approach can be effective, it’s also important that brands reflect society closely and show empathy with the challenges currently facing consumers. Demonstrating a human side can ensure a brand remains relevant. Sensitively promoting real-life case studies and meaningful initiatives—even as simple as explaining how you’re actively supporting employees and customers—can help to drive positive sentiment in the long and short term. Provided the activity aligns with the brand’s core values, putting people before profits is always warmly re­­­ceived and especially in a crisis.

Brands that are willing to be bold and vocal in the coming months will recover faster and emerge as leaders in their field with a strong brand awareness and affinity with consumers. PR can be crucial to achieving this, with communications that are reassuring in their consistency, inspiring in their creativity and engaging in their empathy. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ may be a familiar phrase, but in the current climate it has never been more true.­­

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Mimi Brown
Mimi Brown is Head of the Entrepreneurs & Business division at The PHA Group.

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