Kate Howe

Executive Director Creative, Commerce and Customer Experience Dentsu Aegis Network UK&I

To say that we are living in uncertain times has become so popular that it has now achieved the distinction of being a cliché. The ‘B’ word continues to dominate political discourse, technology evolves at breakneck pace, climate change is a growing global emergency, and Love Island contestants leave the villa before they’ve even unpacked their bags. However, the truth is that uncertainty has always been a fundamental part of everyday life.

The fact that the future is so difficult to predict means that feelings of doubt hit us all from time to time. Whether you’re planning your weekly shop, evaluating your best route home during a rail strike, or if you’re president of the United States contemplating if you really should hit send on that tweet (a thought many would wager rarely crosses his mind).

On the surface, these every-day feelings pose a challenge to marketers that may struggle to truly understand the unpredictable nature of their customers. But by better understanding how people are inclined to react maybe we can help businesses take an important and proactive role of leadership for people looking to make decisions.

It was that belief that helped inform Understanding Uncertainty – our latest whitepaper that fuses together the insight of three leading psychologists and expertise of a behavioural insight agency with proprietary research panel Opinion Hub. It identifies four key behavioural patterns that people typically revert to when faced with feelings of doubt: emotional buyers, familiar choices, control seekers, and decision avoiders.

Emotional buying

Also known as affect regulation, this behaviour describes the product choices people make to impact their mood. Something that people are more likely to do when faced with uncertain times, and so content that encapsulates that emotional reaction is more likely to resonate, especially in categories that are associated with high uncertainty.

For example, the report found that 42% of UK mums say looking at other mums’ ‘perfect lives’ on social media makes them feel worse about themselves. This is where a campaign like Mothercare’s Baby Proud Mums, which showcased the beauty of a post-birth body in a realistic way comes into its own. This positive reinforcement can help manage the doubt that mothers may feel.

Familiar choices

Similarly, buyers making accustomed choices reflect the role that trust can play in a purchase decision. Anxiety and feelings of a loss of control trigger a desire to reduce risk and gravitate to safer choices. This is highlighted in The Drum’s Most Connected Brands Report which found that 31 of the top 50 brands favoured by UK residents are those that are 60 years old. 

It’s why brands like Heinz and John Lewis so successfully and succinctly call on their heritage in their advertising. The challenge for new or emerging brands is how they can build that by enhancing memory or sentiment from people’s past.

Control seekers

Quite understandably when the world around us is so unpredictable, many people look to regain a sense of control through the things they buy. The key in this scenario is to help establish a sense of control. Online bank Monzo has been a particularly successful proponent of this, by helping its users through regular notifications each time they spend and automatically categorising it.

Decision avoiders

Technology has streamlined supply chains and better-connected people than ever before. However, the ever-expanding amount of information that is now available at our fingertips has caused a ‘paradox of choice’ – in which too much information leaves them unable to make decisions. Understanding Uncertainty found that 48% of people will avoid making decisions in the hope that someone else will do it for them.

Helping customers make decisions directly can be beneficial for brands and retailers. Research shows that giving people the option to delegate makes them less prone to walk away from difficult choices empty-handed.

Leading the way

All four of these behaviours showcase the need for brands to take a leadership role in people’s live by offering consistency of behaviour and purpose, information and empowerment, and little moments of assistance that reduce the burden of life. 

This means being genuinely data-driven to better understand what people want. It means committing to the creative ideas that have for so long been the bedrock of our industry. And it means embracing the way technology is affecting our lives and helping people to make sense of it.

These three things provide the roadmap to success. Whatever the future holds.

This article first appeared in The Drum in July 2019