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October 11, 2022
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Customer experience
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Mood of the nation: How marketers can navigate uncertainty

The axis of the universe has tilted: instability and uncertainty are our new normal.

On any one day, a scan of the front page of the newspaper or the first 15 mins of the radio news is like playing current affairs bingo. Interest rates, war, recession, climate change, house prices, cost of living – and, of course, still COVID. We are seeing things we never thought we would see in our lifetime, and that go against all we have taught to believe. Wars in Europe? Nuclear war? House prices going down?   

It’s hardly surprising that we have seen societal fears on the rise globally. 

Businesses are actively monitoring the dynamic forces affecting their areas of concern, whether that is supply chains or talent shortages or the ever-present pressures of budgets and growth targets.

Distrust is now the default position for 6 in 10 people (although New Zealand does buck some of the global trends with trust in government and private sector organisations increasing).

No matter whether you are a brand owner, a public sector organisation or a not-for-profit, you’ll want some guidance to help navigate these tumultuous times. This is hard to come by: so much of what we’re encountering is new territory and the road is being built as we go. 

Australia and New Zealand report higher levels of uncertainty. 

At a global level, uncertainty is on the rise - reaching levels close to Sept. 11, 2001. However, the uncertainty index by country shows that New Zealand and Australia are over-indexing versus similarly developed countries. TRA’s recent work in New Zealand found 78% of people are experiencing at least a moderate level of uncertainty, with 37% claiming to be experiencing at high level of uncertainty in their lives. We’ve definitely got a case of the wobbles in this part of the world.

Source: World Uncertainty Index

Human beings don’t like uncertainty. It stimulates parts of our brain that creates feelings of fear, anger and anxiety. These are evolved responses to keep us safe. If we encounter a new experience, we are on high alert – we see monsters where there are only shadows.  

We see this in Zavy’s Radar tracker, which measures sentiment and emotion - where we see fear and anger growing in frequency and intensity. 

We also see it in data on New Zealand’s mental wellbeing, with anxiety on the rise too. In a 2021 StatsNZ survey, 28% of Kiwis claimed to have poor mental wellbeing. 

Source: Stats NZ

Uncertainty is a challenge for brands and organisations.

There isn’t a lot that marketers can do about the big social, economic and environmental shifts that impact the state of the nation. However, there is lot we can do to show that we understand the mood of the nation and how consumers are feeling right now.   

Misjudging the public mood can be very costly. 

It is well-known that uncertainty reduces the willingness of firms to hire and invest and of consumers to spend. While you could argue uncertainty makes us more inventive and creative, that is only true if the uncertainty is managed.  

When humans experience uncertainty, they have an instinctive reaction resulting in one of three key behaviours: fight, flight or freeze. While we mostly temper those reactions with a more thoughtful response, when uncertainty is dialled up, these intuitive reactions become more typical.

Flight, fight and freeze may stop someone from making a decision or taking an action in their best interest - and they can trigger aggressive behaviour or irrational decision-making. For example, in times of uncertainty people are more likely to abandon their online shopping cart or hurl abuse at customer service staff. 

As organisations, it’s our job to help people find their way from fight, flight or freeze to a calmer state of comfort, confidence and control

Our world has changed, but our brains haven't.

The human brain is 100,000 years old. Despite the context of our lives changing significantly - its basic wiring hasn’t changed. We can use what we understand about human behaviour to help guide our strategy through uncertainty.

In uncertain times - like now - we see a spike in people accessing horoscope websites. Even in 2022, when people feel unsure - we look to the stars. We've developed something better with TRA’s four guiding stars: transparency, consistency, clear expectations and social proof.

These are clear markers brands and organisations can use to help navigate uncertainty and serve their customers better than ever.

Guiding stars for navigating uncertainty

1. Transparency

One way to restore and build trust in organisations is through openness in communications, honesty in reporting and transparency around business practices and user experiences. Transparency is a gradient, not a reveal-all. There needs to be enough transparency around areas such as business practices, business models and supply chains so a customer can make informed choices.  

Transparency counters all instinctive responses of fight, flight and freeze and instead creates feelings of comfort and confidence. 

  • Be open and honest when it comes to your products, your pricing, your values, and how you do business. 
  • Use sensory triggers such as the sound of someone typing, a time bar progressing, a spinning ball.  
  • Use information triggers such as ‘we have searched 100 sites for you’ or ‘we have two more steps to take’.

2. Consistency

When people feel the world shifting around them, they look to find solid, unmoving things they can rely on. People trust things that are familiar – it reduces our uncertainty about the unknown. While inconsistency is a major trigger of uncertainty, repetition is kind to the brain. 

Consistency should be your north star. It replaces a fight response with feelings of control. 

  • Think carefully before you redesign your packaging, shake up your brand tone or launch a new product. Whatever you do, be consistent. 
  • Keep a consistent brand message, brand cues and distinctive assets.  
  • Also ensure consistency in the customer experience.  

3. Setting expectations

People don’t expect perfection – but they do expect you to keep your word, and to do what you say you’re going to do. Over-promising and under-delivering is one sure-fire path to erode trust in your brand and increase uncertainty about brand choice, purchase decisions or engaging with your agency. 

Setting clear expectations of your product or service with your consumer counters fight responses and creates feelings of control and comfort. 

  • Let your audience know what they can anticipate from you, including any obstacles, delays or other circumstances. 
  • Ensure that expectations around peak memory moments – or moments that matter – always meet expectations.  
  • Lay out next steps or stages which will give a sense of control and reduce fear of the unknown.
  • Replace a big market reveal, rebrand or refresh with a gradual rollout that lays out the next steps. 

4. Social proof

People have an inbuilt need to belong. Belonging serves many purposes, specifically in relation to uncertainty it makes us feel safe (‘safety in numbers’). Social proof helps speed up decision making and/or reinforce a positive decision. 

Social proof counters the instinctive freeze response and creates feelings of comfort and confidence. 

  • Show what other people are doing through ratings and reviews. 
  • Use celebrity endorsements and testimonials. 
  • Highlight statistics that show how many people have used your product or business. 

Uncertainty isn't going away anytime soon.

The predominant public mood is a strong one. It's more important than ever that brands and organisations learn how to manage these emotions in their customers and create a clear path forward.

Want to craft a mood-relevant plan for your brand or organisation? Download our 'navigating uncertainty' worksheet here

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October 11, 2022
Contributed by
Tagged with
Behaviour change
Brand & creative
Customer experience
Cultural insight
Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen Ryan, Partner at TRA, has a curious and strategic mindset fuelled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.
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