Brand communication in the crisis

"Outdoor clothing is becoming a kind of armor".

Graduate psychologist Birgit Langebartels from the rheingold institute in Cologne talks about the current mood of consumers in Germany, how brands should react to it and why the trend towards nature is unbroken.

The interview appeared in TextilWirtschaft on November 29, 2022.

'We put people on the couch in Germany' is how your institute describes its way of working. You've just published a new study. What is the mood currently like on the sofas in German living rooms - especially against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine?

We actually wanted to go out in early 2022 with a new study on 'How are people doing after two years of Corona?' Our idea was that everyone was waiting in the wings and wanted to consume, wanted to get out, wanted to meet friends. But people were more melancholy, melancholy. 'Dating now or finally celebrating a big birthday this year, I don't know,' was often heard. People were engaged in something like disappointment prophylaxis. And then the war broke out and we expanded the study to include the question 'How do people experience the war?

With what result?

People went into something like a state of shock. Nobody expected that a war would come so close and take place in Europe. There were very many expressions of solidarity, in very different forms. Here in Cologne, for example, the Shrove Monday parade was canceled and turned into a peace demonstration. This togetherness helped the people.

But in the end, such rigidity cannot be maintained psychologically. We have to function somehow. In our survey in May, we saw that people tried to block out the war as much as possible. People described that they consumed much, much less news, that they sometimes really stopped watching the news and hardly followed what was going on in the war. But of course we also know - not only as psychologists - that what we repress is not gone, but continues to have an effect. This was also the case with the attempt to suppress the war. We have summarized this in the term 'war tinnitus'. The war was repressed, but was still sometimes more sometimes less noticeable.

In the summer, however, one could already get the feeling that the war is no longer taking place at all...

That's right. That was actually so the summer break of the problems. Many people caught up on their celebrations. Round birthdays, which were no longer round, were celebrated. We went on vacation, we enjoyed the beautiful weather. But we somehow already suspected, autumn and winter will not be quite so cozy. However, we saw in our last update in September that the whole crisis with inflation and energy crisis has not yet reached all households.

So the mood is currently better than expected?

We actually already thought that people were wrestling much more with the current situation, but that is by no means the case in every household. What everyone describes, however, is the experience of something very vague. We call it the specter of the vague. It is a crisis of uncertain scope and duration. It's hard to say how hard the crisis will ultimately hit us. Is it just that I might have to put on a warm sweater? Or will the whole economy collapse in winter? Will there be a blackout? Will the relief packages be enough? How much will my electric bill go up? Faced with this uncertainty, we have much less in our hands to do anything about it. And this uncertainty can be felt at various levels, which harbors a very great potential for fear.

What does this mean for consumer behavior?

There are already signs of a split in society, because people are affected to different degrees. Households that have already been close to or even below the subsistence line are currently experiencing an existential impasse. They can no longer save at all, and for them this additional burden is an enormous threat. Others already have to restrict themselves very severely in their everyday lives and have great fears of falling behind. For another group in the population, it is more of a vague threat. They save, but in the end they don't really have to save. But this saving helps them because they get the feeling that 'I can do something about the crisis, I can show solidarity. And then we also have the part of the population that can basically save because they are so well off. We see four different types of crisis perception among the population. Compared to the Corona pandemic, this is a big difference, where the prevailing feeling was that everyone was in the same boat.

What does this differentiation mean for companies?

In any case, saving has a stabilizing and thus important psychological significance. In any case, shopping routines are disrupted. In this context, companies and brands have to ask themselves how they act when people spend less, but they also have to think more carefully about what they spend their money on.

To what extent should companies and brands address the issue in their communications?

It should not be forgotten that people who do not really have to save money are also feeling the effects of the crisis and are therefore also out of step and unsettled. If brands or manufacturers don't respond to this at all, I think that's a very big mistake. Brands must not go underground now, they must be present. It is important that brands address this in their communications, but of course with a positive focus. Basically, brands need to implicitly communicate 'How can I help you get through this crisis?' We have come up with several recommendations for communication. Brands and manufacturers can be transitional helpers.

"It is a crisis of uncertain magnitude and duration."

Birgit Langebartels

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Presence is important and that consumers feel a sense of reliability à la 'My brand will not leave me alone even in these times'. Transparency is important, showing how the brand, the manufacturer is dealing with the difficulties in these times of crisis. When we advise brands, we take a close look at people's everyday reality. Brands and products have different functions for consumers. Some tend to accompany everyday life, while others - including fashion - help people get into a different mood. These are more psychological mood changers. Companies have to work out exactly which psychological field they serve. From this, they then derive what consumers expect.

What messages are currently particularly important in brand-to-consumer communications?

We see three major thematic blocks there: Preserving, stabilizing and encouraging. A preserving message relates more to the past. It conveys to people, 'You don't have to lose everything that's dear to you.' Something remains constant. Persil, for example, has done this well with its 30 degrees campaign. The message is, even at 30 degrees, the laundry gets clean. Something is changed, but at the same time something is preserved. And that stabilizes people and at the same time legitimizes them to continue using this product or ultimately to turn on the machine and consume energy.

This is where the stabilizing aspect comes in. The message must be 'we can help you to stabilize yourself in your everyday life so that you can find your feet again'. The substance remains intact even in the crisis. We have noticed, for example, that many people are now buying their own brands of butter, coffee and pasta.

Other brands allow you to get a certain constitution. Example Ristorante pizza. If people can go out to eat less now, they can create something like a restaurant constitution at home with this pizza and thus maintain the feeling of 'I'm doing something good for myself'. The current research shows quite clearly that it is very important for people to maintain small oases, small feel-good moments in their everyday lives when large expenditures such as vacations, going out, culture are no longer possible.

It's always said that a crisis is also an opportunity. Do you also see this as an opportunity for brands at the moment?

It may sound paradoxical, but in any case, the same is true now. In the current situation, people are putting everything to the test. Coming up with a clear message now is an enormous opportunity for the brand. Things are being reassessed. People are dealing with questions like 'What do I really want to keep for my everyday life?' 'What am I saying goodbye to?' 'What does me good, what doesn't do me so good?' This is where brands need to show up and offer solutions to the crisis. In my opinion, the biggest mistake would be to disappear from the scene, not to communicate, or to continue as before. Because something has really changed. And that's also what consumers are reflecting to us in the interviews, that they're saying, 'Yes, I'm cutting back, for me, my everyday life has changed, the crisis is shaking me. But what are the brands doing?'

What should they do?

Sending the signal 'We see your need, we see that you need to change'. And in doing so, showing what they have done themselves and communicating what they are doing to get through this time well. That's the stabilizing aspect again. Even in the Corona period, it was strongly demonstrated that regaining self-efficacy and control was incredibly important. Home improvement stores were stormed and there was tinkering, building, gardening. There was a sense of 'you can create something yourself.' And at the end of the day, at the end of the week after the weekend, you can really look back with pride at a piece of work.

So give courage for new things?

We can all use a positive outlook for the future. It must be communicated that the crisis has a beginning, but it also has an end at some point. Even if we don't really believe that at the moment. A crisis also has an end when we have learned a different way of dealing with it. The term resilience is often used in this context. However, being resilient does not mean that everything is always easy, but that a way of dealing with difficult situations is learned. Brands and manufacturers can convey such confidence in the future. Take H&M, for example. The company advertises with 'Let's change for tomorrow'. That's a positive view of the future. Brands such as Nivea, Dr.Oetker and Käptn Iglo have survived many decades and crises, but have remained true to their brand core and have always adapted to the prevailing conditions in society. That conveys strength.

Does this also apply to sports and outdoor brands, which can particularly grab people through experiences and emotions?

In any case. We saw that in the Corona era in particular. Outdoors became the better indoors. The risk of infection was not so great outside, and at the same time outdoor activities helped people to feel their own self-efficacy. This strengthened people for the strenuous everyday life. The outdoor clothing is also perceived as a kind of armor. In general, it's exciting how clothing changes how you feel. We hear again and again in the interviews 'When I wear this piece of clothing, it helps me to become a certain person'.

So the outdoor jacket helps to become a nature lover and hiker?

Not only that. A hike is usually a certain effort, but it's worth it. Because you return to everyday life a bit changed, with the good feeling of having accomplished something and having become a bit stronger. People always describe to us this healing effect of excursions into nature, to feel oneself, to feel the rain on one's skin, to let the wind blow around one's nose, to conquer something oneself, to create something oneself. And I think that will remain, not least because the crisis mode continues. So with that, we will always be able to get back a piece of self-efficacy. And people have also noticed that recreation is right on their doorstep, a vacation very close by, so to speak.

Which outdoor brands do you think play this theme well?

Some brands in this area are currently succeeding in bringing the issue of sustainability to the forefront, for example Patagonia: Consumers also see it as a courtesy on the part of the brand that it is doing something for the environment itself. The offer of repairing clothing is also perceived as a timely response.

The outdoor industry in particular is committed to sustainability. What role does the topic play for people in the current situation?

This positive experience of nature is of course very closely linked to the issue of sustainability. It involves the preservation of nature and thus also something stabilizing. When it comes to the outdoors, we see all three aspects that are so important to people at the moment: The preserving, the stabilizing and the encouraging.

The interview was conducted by Aziza Freutel.

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