For anyone acquainted with qual research, it would have been a very familiar scene. It was a midweek evening in early 2022 and half a dozen strangers were sitting together in a Holborn viewing facility, shyly introducing themselves to one another.
Until one man’s introduction abruptly changed the direction of the discussion and the atmosphere in the room. He mentioned he had noticed a significant spike in the family food bill since the New Year, and both he and his partner had realised there were several hundred pounds less in their shared account at the end of the month than usual. His comment was immediately met with murmurs and enthusiastic nods of agreement from the five strangers who moments earlier had been tentatively introducing themselves to one another but were now sharing their anxiety over soaring living costs, and their worry about what lay ahead.
It’s of course true that different people have drastically different circumstances. As was the case with the pandemic, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis has been much more pronounced for some people than others. However, what we observed that evening was a clear sense of shared experience, and hardship, amongst the group – all of whom were going through a process of adaption, as they braced themselves for a turbulent period defined by soaring living costs and uncertainty.
Casting a long shadow
Crucially, this isn’t a conversation topic that has waned. A privilege of our work at See is that we get to spend so much time speaking to members of the public. They invite us into their homes and tell us about their lives – and much as the cost-of-living crisis has remained stubbornly in the news cycle, it is still consistently cropping up in our discussions.
So, what does the long shadow of the cost-of-living crisis mean to us as researchers and marketers? At its core, it’s quite simple – when people’s bank balances are impacted, this has a knock-on effect on their decision making, influencing how they think about different categories and products. Perhaps that takeaway coffee on the way to work, once a staple of your office routine, has become more of an occasional treat. Those subscriptions which you signed up to during lockdown? They’ve been consigned to the scrapheap. These are just a couple of examples of how people are adapting their spending habits in the face of the cost-of-living crisis.
With this turbulent backdrop, against which all businesses are operating, the importance of brand relevance hits home. At a time when many people are re-evaluating their spend, how can brands position themselves to maximise their relevance, ensuring that cost-cutting consumers see them as indispensable?
Shortly after I began writing this article, I came across Mark Ritson’s Defending Differentiation seminar, where Ritson proposed that the goal of brands should be “relative differentiation” – that is, rather than setting out to be entirely unique at both a brand and product level, they should instead identify a small number of key attributes which customers care about and look to do these better than competitors.
It wasn’t only the clarity and simplicity of Ritson’s argument which stood out to me – it also reminded me of the philosophy of one of my personal heroes, Steve Borthwick. Borthwick isn’t a marketer or researcher – he’s the former head coach of the Leicester Tigers (he’s also currently coaching the England team, but who cares about that when you have the mighty Tigers on your CV?).
Finding your brand’s super strengths
Borthwick empowers and encourages his squad to hone what he calls their ‘super strengths’ – those 1 or 2 key attributes which set them apart from their competition. He argues that players tend to prioritise a rounding out of their abilities and a broadening of their skillset which – whilst a noble objective – can lead them to neglect those key strengths which got them selected for the squad in the first place.
At this point you may well be furrowing your brow, and contemplating why you’ve spent the last few minutes reading an article which links the cost-of-living crisis to a rugby coaching philosophy – but hear me out.
Ultimately, this philosophy holds true for brands as much as it does for rugby players – and this is where consumer research comes in. Rather than casting a wide net, brands can use research to drill down to these key attributes – uncovering strengths which both resonate with people and that your brand can communicate with credibility and with confidence.
It’s about finding your brand’s ‘thing’, its super strength, whether that’s something you do differently, or better, than your competition – and then honing and communicating this as the prized point of “relative differentiation” which Ritson advocates.
Given that the cost-of-living crisis has been impacting life for over 18 months and shows little sign of abating, it feels imperative that marketeers and researchers draw inspiration from both Ritson and Borthwick to cultivate and communicate their super strengths. If done with clarity and in a way that resonates with people, they’ll put their brands in the strongest position possible to thrive, even when those difficult household budgeting decisions are being made. So when strangers in focus groups are bonding over the sacrifices they are making due to ‘cozzie livs’, it’s not your brand they’re dumping.