How brands can help consumers emerge from a conflict-filled Q4

Schillhorn: How Brands Can Help Consumers Emerge From a Conflict-Filled Q4

October 5, 2020

McKinney LA Director of Strategy Anita Schillhorn writes about some of the insight found in the ongoing research we’ve been fielding in “Consumer Sentiment in the Age of Covid.”

Q4 is usually a hectic, if predictable, scramble to the end of the year. But, this year, Q4 is going to be a complete shit show. The pandemic, a divisive election, social unrest, and economic flux are throwing all of our expectations out the window. Industries that are used to busy seasons, like retail, food, and travel, or quiet seasons, like hotels, find themselves in uncharted territory when it comes to consumer sentiment and behavior. 

At McKinney, we’ve been running ongoing waves of research since the early stages of the pandemic to better understand what consumers have been thinking, feeling, and doing. As we enter Q4, we wanted to dig deeper and assess how an incredibly bad year has impacted consumers as they move into the election and holiday seasons.

We found that consumers feel overwhelmed by conflict. As the pandemic continues to shape the way people work, shop, and live, it was politics and social unrest that dominated consumers’ worries. 

But what really surprised us was the sense of internal conflict that consumers are feeling as they find their values at odds with the strange reality of a year that just keeps getting stranger. This is called cognitive dissonance. According to cognitive dissonance theory, people strive for internal psychological consistency. But when people hold two contradictory motivations at the same time, or are asked to act in a way that goes against their beliefs, it adds more psychological struggle to an already stressful situation. Brands can help by doing what they can to alleviate the dissonance between people’s conflicting motivations. 

Here are three ways we saw that manifest and what it might mean for brands.

People are missing their families and friends more than ever—but that longing comes with concern and some inner turmoil. Fifty-five percent of people we surveyed are worried about unintentionally infecting their loved ones with Covid-19, but 44% of those still plan to visit family this holiday season—and 44% even plan to hug them.

And with the solution for Covid-19 still out of reach, many are rethinking the typical holiday plans of reuniting with family over a dinner table but aren’t ready to completely let go of tradition.

Take the travel category, for example: Consumers usually stay with family over the holidays. This year, however, our data shows that 40% of people planning to visit family over the holidays are planning to stay at a hotel to minimize risk exposure. This pattern creates opportunities for brands to play a role in supporting new traditions of family gatherings. In the food category as well, there will be few opportunities for the typical large home-cooked holiday meal, so food brands can find new ways to deliver smaller holiday meal sizes, or support families on the road without kitchen access.

This year, consumers have been asked to shop their values more than ever. The quarantine gutted small businesses, while the Black Lives Matter movement focused consumers on supporting Black-owned businesses. Sixty-three percent of people say they want to support local businesses but, of those, over 70% are still shopping online for the cheapest deals.

Shopping your values has always been at odds with convenience. But this year the polarization is at its peak, juxtaposing dire safety considerations and a heightened sense of ethics in light of racial injustice.

Retail brands large and small are on opposite sides of the equation—but both have something to learn. Large brands that can scale convenience can also find ways to partner with and elevate small businesses. For example, in their Foot the Bill program, Vans partnered with small businesses to create special designs of their customizable shoes, the profits of which went back to those businesses. Small businesses have also found ways to make shopping more convenient for their consumers, adding curbside pickup, partnering with their neighbors for delivery, or expanding their online payment options.

Even people who say they don’t care about politics are planning to make their voice heard at the polls this year. Almost a quarter of people said they were indifferent to politics but, of those, more than 70% were planning to vote, whether in person or by mail. 

This election season will be a drawn-out affair, and even those who think little about politics recognize the importance of this political moment. Some are predicting an unprecedented turnout, even with the new processes in place and conflicting information around mail-in ballots.

Many brands are being careful this contentious election season, but we can all agree on the importance of voting. One of the projects we’re working on is with Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit partnering with outdoor athletes and brands to advance support of the outdoors. Our campaign aims to convince everyone to make a plan to vote by focusing on how the great outdoors connects Americans no matter where you live or what your beliefs are. 

It’s not all conflict though—most people agree that the holidays this year have added importance in lifting our spirits after a tough year. Join us on Tuesday, October 6 at Advertising Week for “Welcome to the Shit Show” to learn more about how brands can help consumers find a little bit more holiday cheer during a Q4 like no other.