The Importance of Comfort in the Recession

Meghan VH
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In a recent Country Financial Poll, 75% of adults surveyed said the issue of money and the economy were stressful topics for their families. The Stress in America Survey by the American Psychological Association found 81% of Northeast U.S. residents are most worried about the economy and money. Our own research tracking financial behaviors, sentiment and intentions on a monthly basis shows a sharp decline in consumer attitudes from May 2008 to February 2009. Concerns about the state of the economy, the stock market, personal debt and job security are top-of-mind. And most Americans (69%) are not confident that the recently approved stimulus bill will have a positive effect on their personal financial situation. These stressors create feelings of insecurity, discomfort and uncertainty, and lead Americans to seek sources of comfort in all facets of their lives.

Spending time with people who are close to you is a key coping mechanism. Attempts to seek comfort might also be linked to the increase of personal ads on craigslist, as well as a 20% increase in registrations on match.com and eharmony.

Not surprisingly, trend data show that people are eating more comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, meatballs and breakfast at all hours of the day. In these tough times familiar food brands such as Kraft and General Mills are also receiving a boost during the economic downturn.

The comfort trend has also hit fashion. According to Alisa Gould-Simon from blackbook.com, more and more fashion trendsetters are turning to classic frocks from the ‘30s and ‘40s, with vintage detailing and design. The spring 2009 lines feature a muted color palate and classic shapes and designs reminiscent of Old English culture. This trend of nostalgia was on full display at the Golden Globe Awards this year. Gould-Simon quips, “Recession chic is all about comforting fashions by way of the tried-and-true.”

Uggs, the popular sheepskin boots, have not suffered during the recession. Deckers Outdoor Corporation reported in their third quarter 2008 results that UGG brand sales increased 57% from last year. It appears as though consumers have shifted from ‘…looking good to feeling good.’

Data show that even “comfort” companies –those that have built their brand around nurturing products such as chocolate producer Hershey’s and escapism activities, like DVD rental company Netflix – benefit from economic downturns.

These examples beg the question: What do we hope to achieve by turning to comfort items and nostalgia? How does doing so make us feel better during tough times? Is this simply a perceived benefit or does comfort truly benefit our body and mind?

According to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), familiar brand names elicit emotional responses in our brains. The researchers, using fMRI, showed participants both well-known and lesser-known brands and asked them questions to gauge their perceptions of the brands. Well-known brands elicited activation in the areas of the brain associated with positive emotional responses, while lesser-known brands were not as targeted in their activation, producing activation in areas that are associated with working memory and negative emotional processing, along with those that are associated with positive emotional processing. Participants could process well-known brands with less effort than lesser-known ones ). According to researchers in China, nostalgia is therapeutic, and can combat feelings of loneliness in humans. In a sense, nostalgia can help people feel emotionally connected, even in times of despair.

While marketing budgets may not allow for experimentation with fMRIs to gauge consumers’ emotional responses, Sentient Decision Science’s unique research tools such as Automatic Brand Associations methodology can help companies understand consumers’ emotional connection with their brand.

This is also the time to focus on your brand strategy. As we’ve seen, familiar and established brands benefit during recessions. Two studies provide evidence that raising awareness of your brand and increasing your brand equity during the economic downturn will put you a step ahead of companies that halt advertising and marketing as a way to cut back. A study by McGraw-Hill Research among 600 companies from 1980-1985 found that B-to-B companies that maintained or increased their ad spending during the early 1980s recession averaged significantly higher sales growth during the time period than those companies that reduced or eliminated advertising. Another series of studies by Meldrum & Fewsmith with the American Business Press of the 1970 and 1979 recessions also found that aggressive advertising spending resulted in greater sales growth and profits.

As the recession continues, marketers must be diligent about finding the emotional triggers (we call them human truths) that elicit feelings of comfort and reassurance in their consumers. They must be sure to create and deliver products that fulfill these promises, and be true to their authentic selves in the process. Smart brands create strong connections with their consumers – connections that are built on shared values and mutual respect. Both parties need to deliver something of value to the other: this was true before the recession, and will be true when the dust has cleared.

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