By understanding the forces underpinning feelings of fear, brands and companies can begin to address their audiences’ needs in an empathetic and thoughtful way.As researchers, we know that anxiety influences shopping behavior. People ask themselves things like: “Am I making the right choice for my family when it comes to the products I’m buying?” Over the past year, we saw a shift in levels of anxiety, something a bit deeper and more existential, prompting us to dive in and explore this trend. This winter, we conducted a nationally representative study to explore these issues in depth. By combining our findings with secondary research, we found four key drivers for heightened anxiety, all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is probably no surprise. We are in a place of fairly staggering income inequality with 1% holding nearly 40% of the wealth in America. Now, with the novel coronavirus and subsequent shutdowns and social distancing measures severely affecting normal business patterns, some experts say we are looking at disastrous economic failure. This is contributing to financial fear in consumers, something that our research found was already high.
Our research showed that personal finances and the cost of health care ranked as the number one concern for 14% of respondents. In fact, the impact of higher health care expenses goes beyond causing anxiety. A survey from the health savings account platform Lively found that health care costs were causing Americans to divert resources away from achieving other financial and life milestones, like saving up to buy their first home or preparing for retirement.
With the presidential election looming, politics are top of mind for many Americans. According to Pew Research, a mere 17% of Americans say that they trust the government to do what is right. This eerily matches a data point in our own research, where only 17% of respondents agreed that “people in power care about what is best for society.”
Issues like this have been festering for years and have persisted, leading many respondents in our research to express frustration at a lack of attempted solutions or compromise on big-ticket items like immigration, health care and climate change. They also viewed the country’s leadership as more likely to play political games rather than fix real problems. One issue in this arena that stood out to us in our research was our respondents’ fears surrounding climate change. Respondents wrote about the issue in terms of an imminent, existential threat and expressed frustration that the domestic debate over answering the crisis remains mired.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the sociological issues that have become part of the fabric of American life. Most of these issues touch on trends that are tied directly into a respondent’s sense of identity — like religion or race — or to their community, where issues like crime or education aren’t as universal across geography.
One sociological concern that resonates with all of us right now is concern over employment and potential joblessness related to the pandemic. These fears are compiled with existing commentary surrounding expert predictions that many jobs — up to 25% — are at high risk of being automated. This is a prevailing fear among consumers, and job loss concerns were already in progress before we arrived at this moment in time with the global crisis.
Fifty-four percent of consumers want to be informed, but news stresses them out. We are continuously drowning in information, consuming almost 90 times more information in terms of bits today than we did in 1940, and four times more than we did even a mere 20 years ago.
More recently, news consumption has shifted dramatically, as people struggle to stay informed with the latest data and news surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. What we saw in our research was that the way people consume news has a direct impact on their levels of anxiety and fear, and therefore on their behaviors and confidence making purchases. I wrote more about this in my article for Forbes called “Be Afraid, Or Be Very Afraid: News Sources, Fear And Shopping Habits.”
Fear and anxiety are the emotions du jour. Unfortunately, we’ve been forced into high levels of these unwelcome emotions due to the global pandemic. This represents a sharp acceleration of sentiment that was already driving behaviors among Americans. Brands must approach audiences with care in order to address this new reality. A few steps that should be considered include:
• Acknowledge that your customers’ fears are a reality. Don’t brush these monumental feelings under the rug, and have an empathetic approach to your messaging and communications. Talk about fear with your customers and don’t leave it out of your market research efforts. In particular, pay attention to women and moms. Our research shows that these groups are significantly more likely to feel anxious or experience lower confidence levels than men and dads.
• Explore which social justice issues are of importance to the community you serve. Consumers are looking to brands, retailers and companies that are doing the right thing, so make sure you are hitting the mark and not alienating your key audiences. It’s important to stay up to date on how people’s perceptions, sentiment and circumstances are changing.
• Display comfort and confidence in a time of instability. You can do this by providing as much in-depth information as possible to make consumers feel empowered, and giving them an understanding of what actions your company is taking to be a part of larger solutions that meet the needs of your community and society.
By understanding the forces underpinning feelings of fear — economic, political, sociological and informational — brands and companies can begin to address their audiences’ needs in an empathetic and thoughtful way.
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Author: Rebecca Brooks, CommunityVoice