John Gerzema on the Post-Crisis Consumer

Crises (like COVID-19) allow brands to recommit to their values—and can be an opportunity to once again connect with the real human needs that gave rise to them.

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As of spring 2020, the health and economic crisis born by the coronavirus outbreak has seized the nation. Grasping for insights on the economic side, people have looked back to the 2008 financial crisis over a decade earlier to compare and to predict the world that we will live in after this crisis. Brands, fearing for their survival, want to know what consumer behavior will look like after this unprecedented upending to our way of life. Although the coronavirus crisis has very different causes than the 2008 crisis, looking at the aftermath of the 2008 crisis can help us be better prepared for the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. 

Crises allow brands to rethink their values, according to John Gerzema, then-Chief Insights Officer at Y&R, in his 2010 talk at Columbia Business School’s BRITE Conference entitled “The Post-Crisis Consumer,” which was based on ideas from his book, The Brand Bubble (2008). And those brands that double down on their values and emerge post-crisis will inevitably have fewer competitors and may be in an even stronger position than they were pre-crisis. “We are moving from an era of mindless consumption to mindful consumption. In a world where people have less disposable resources, both physical and financial, the marketplace is correcting business and will re-force capitalism to be about better instead of simply about more,” Gerzema said.

Although Gerzema gave this talk 10 years ago, we felt the video was worth pulling from the vault as the insights are applicable once again in today’s crisis environment—check out the video and read our points below on what brands can do now to put themselves in a better position to thrive post-crisis:

1) Think about your purpose and support immediate human needs right now. 

In better times (2014), thinking about its purpose as a healthcare company—and not merely another retailer—led CVS Health to take a projected revenue loss of $2B by ceasing to sell tobacco products at its stores. Today, CVS’ purpose as a healthcare company guided it to be “part of the solution” in the coronavirus crisis by opening up a coronavirus testing center for healthcare workers amid a national crisis of severely limited coronavirus testing options, as well as giving bonuses of up to $500 to some of its workers who are putting themselves in harm's way by filling essential services roles during the pandemic.    

2) Show empathy.

During this time of protracted collective suffering, any act of kindness is deeply felt—and that includes acts of kindness from brands. Brands that show concern for humanity today are putting themselves in a better position to have the coveted trust of consumers now and in the future. A range of companies, including Ford, have recently been praised for quickly changing the tone of their advertisements from promotional to helpful—in Ford’s case, its most recent ad emphasized that it would be providing Ford Credit customers some breathing room around their car payments in response to the economic hardship that COVID-19 has wrought for many of their customers.

3) Use the time wisely and see it as an investment. 

Distilleries all over the world—from global giants such as Anheuser-Busch and Pernod Ricard to smaller, local craft distilleries—are answering the call to produce hand sanitizer for hospitals and the public amid a critical global shortage of the healthcare product. Ford and GE are set to produce 50,000 ventilators in 100 days to help states fill this critical shortage of medical equipment. While no business enjoys living through a recession, a recession time provides a unique opportunity to respond to changes in customer demand and think creatively about repurposing company resources into other product areas that can create value. In some cases, these new product categories might even become fixtures for the company as times get better. With many experts believing that consumer behavior forged during the pandemic (such as frequently using hand sanitizer) will become more or less permanent, it may not be too far-fetched to believe that we will see hand sanitizer brands from major spirits companies and craft distilleries in the future.

When the dust settles from the coronavirus crisis, however near or far on the horizon it may be, it is likely that we will again find that brands that pursue a purpose beyond profit will be more profitable than those who pursue profit alone, and that, as Gerzema predicted in 2010, quality over quantity will create a more sustainable world for all of us. And although the specifics of our post-COVID-19 future are still unknown, Gerzema has been hard at work on understanding the present. In his current role as CEO of The Harris Poll, Gerzema is leading the latest public opinion polling on the coronavirus crisis as it unfolds in realtime—check out The Harris Poll COVID-19 Tracker for their latest insights.

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