Shaken to the foundations: Advice for brands following a year of crises

Alex Johnston, MD at Jigsaw research, shares some top tips to help marketers navigate heightened moral judgement.

Empty supermarket shelves.

We have entered a new level of brand scrutiny. After several years of unprecedented events including the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit and continuous political turbulence, we’re all hyper-aware of what is going on around us. Without realising it, the UK population has found itself in a state of heightened moral sensitivity and consequent moral judgement.

As a result, consumers are shifting their perceptions of brands – for better – and for worse.

And these changes in perception won’t end with the pandemic. In future, consumers will be increasingly attuned to how companies react to crises and social issues.

At Jigsaw Research, we were curious as to what was driving this heightened moral judgement on the part of consumers. We asked 2,000 people in the UK and US about how the actions brands took throughout the crisis changed their perceptions and behaviour. We discovered that 84% of people in the UK now think differently about a brand because of how it responded to the pandemic. And 66% are acting differently towards a brand, buying more, or less, from them. These decisions are driven not only by practical reasons, but by deeper, emotional ones.

To look into the underlying motivations of consumers, we carried out qualitative research using Moral Foundations Theory as a framework (particularly The Righteous Mind by psychologist Jonathan Haidt). This theory explains that our moral intuitions are formed through a combination of evolution and culture. This was extremely relevant for our study as the theory allowed us to understand how moral values shape what people deem desirable in society, and how these change our expectations of brands.

The theory puts forward six key foundations which form the basis of our moral judgements.

We realised that four out of the six moral foundations have been strongly stirred in the past year, triggering changes in people’s behaviour. The foundations most simulated are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal and purity/degradation. By taking a further look into these foundations, we’ve been able to understand what triggered them, and how brand messaging and actions should therefore adapt.

For example, the care/harm foundation relates to our primal instincts to protect and nurture our offspring, and our sensitivity to their suffering and distress. In the current climate this is manifested through people’s vulnerability, both in health and financially. The challenge that companies, brands and governments face is balancing these two elements. In order to win and trigger the care/harm foundation, brands need to be seen as caring for people’s physical and financial needs.

For example, as a result of its ‘no-rush’ delivery option, 30% of people now think better of Amazon, and 12% have said they have or will start using it. Similarly, 30% of people say they think better of Tesco thanks to its adverts showing how customers will queue to get into store, keeping two metres apart, and wipe down their baskets/trolleys. 9% say they have started or will start using the supermarket.​

Brands that are now seen in a more negative light may have triggered the purity/degradation foundation. This foundation is shaped by the psychology of disgust, which is highly relevant given the current concerns around viral contamination. During our study we heard many reports of feelings of anxiety and concern, triggered in a crowded store, or when employees or other customers don’t wear their masks properly.

For example, 26% of people have said they think worse of Ryanair, and 10% of people stated that they stopped or will stop using the company due to its safety claims. One respondent said, “Ryanair have blatantly lied and made-up evidence about why it would be safe to fly with them”. Now more than ever people need to feel safe at a physical level, and are prepared to avoid, ostracise or boycott people, places or brands that might expose them to the virus.

In order to stay on the right side of consumers’ judgements, here is some advice as to what brands can do:

  • Actions speak louder than words: It isn’t enough to just say the right thing, brands
    must follow up with actions – and be seen whilst doing it.
  • People before profit: Demonstrate that you put others first by making some self-
    sacrifice in pursuit of the common good. This could be through free products or staff
    out-reach, for example.
  • Consistency is key: Treating customers in a supportive manner means nothing if a
    brand doesn’t treat its staff members in the same way. Brands need to be consistent
    in doing the right thing or risk undermining the positive impact of their efforts.

Moral and value-based thinking is all the more relevant in times of crisis. By acknowledging the new climate of heightened moral judgement, and taking note of Moral Foundations Theory, companies will better understand their consumers and respond appropriately – even in a crisis. Morality needs to be built in at the outset – not bolted on at the end of the process.

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