How brands can really help people in a cost-of-living crisis
Brands have a responsibility to create a sense of belonging for consumers during a cost-of-living crisis that is impacting people’s mental health.
It seems that 2024 is set to be the biggest electoral year ever seen, with half the world’s population heading to the polls.
With elections scheduled for the autumn on both sides of the Atlantic — leaving almost a year for “attack” campaigning, disinformation and even deepfakes — it could also become one of the most divisive.
This will put the media under intense scrutiny. Brands, in partnership with their agencies, will need to put trust and responsibility at the top of their agenda.
Brands have a clear opportunity to create a sense of belonging for all their audiences. They need to be supporting communities rather than condoning or reinforcing negative and excluding attitudes.
They can, for example, extend a warm welcome to those who might feel scapegoated politically by drawing on the things that affect everyone. The current global cost-of-living crisis is an example of such a factor. The impact it’s having on mental health, in particular, has been thrown into sharp relief.
Shared — even negative — experiences can be repositioned to bring together even the most disparate communities at a time when most of us are facing similar pressures.
To identify the scale of this problem, UM carried out the Money Talks study across the UK in partnership with MoneySuperMarket and mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, with fieldwork conducted by Dynata.
Notably, it highlighted just how real the struggles caused by the cost-of-living crisis were, particularly when it comes to the future for some already-under-pressure demographics: 52% of adults are more worried about money now than they were 12 months ago, rising to 59% of LBGTQ+ adults and 62% of those living with a disability.
And that, unsurprisingly, leads to an impact on mental health: when thinking about money, 38% highlighted “anxiety” as the main emotion they felt, rising to 42% among people aged 18-24 and 52% of single parents. More than a quarter (27%) admit they find it hard to talk about money.
The survey also found that 69% think brands have a key role to play in the crisis, but only 12% feel they are doing enough. In fact, the cost-of-living crisis could be a rallying call for socially conscious brands to step into public discourse on a subject that impacts practically every audience.
Looking for brands to help
Some brands and categories have already earned the “right” to address national audiences around difficult subjects.
Retail and finance were the sectors that scored highest when people were asked to identify where brands are the most helpful in helping them navigate rising costs. That comes with a caveat, though, as the bar is not particularly high — in each case, only a quarter (25%) agreed that brands in those categories were doing enough.
Yet they — and others — can engage in credible ways that minimise the risks of putting customers off. It’s a matter of not being exploitative or opportunistic, of offering genuine and trustworthy guidance, and simply recognising the struggles people currently face.
In some cases, that might mean adopting a relatable tone and using “real” people, rather than aspirational brand ambassadors. In others, that might mean doing what they can to bring some measure of joy back into their audience’s lives.
Belonging, not isolation
Although the research showed that many people aren’t comfortable talking about their personal finances, brands can help by not being afraid to talk openly about what’s considered a taboo topic — to start “difficult” conversations and, in time, normalise them.
Key to that, of course, is having an in-depth understanding of exactly what each type of customer needs, to better understand areas of commonality in order to bring audiences together and create a sense of community, or to speak to particular subsets authentically.
There are many disenfranchised groups out there and each has been impacted by rising costs in different ways. Brands should be looking to build trust among all of their audiences, especially those most affected by the crisis.
To take one example — a lot has already been written about how younger consumers are facing increasing loneliness and isolation. The Money Talks study revealed that financial pressures aren’t helping: 62% of 18-24s have reduced or even stopped socialising with friends due to the cost-of-living crisis, while 70% have cut back or stopped going out to gigs or to the cinema.
For a generation already facing the impact of social media on their ability to form personal connections, these are alarming statistics.
But brands can play a role in easing their concerns. They just have to understand how to build membership around sensitive financial issues without alienating or patronising people, to create a sense of recognition that we aren’t alone in experiencing anxiety.
Some considered the Covid-19 pandemic a “great leveller” as it finally forced everyone to talk openly about their mental health. If the cost-of-living crisis plays a similar role in forcing conversations about money out into the open, then at least one positive thing will have come out of it.
Kim Lambert is group insight director at UM