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Reaching consumers during pandemic-driven life transitions

Reaching consumers during pandemic-driven life transitions

While consumer habits and tastes are always evolving, there used to be some things marketers could count on year in and year out.

Lots of Americans would get their first jobs right out of college and subsequently need grown-up furniture and work clothes. In a few years they might marry that special someone and suddenly start thinking about mortgages and, eventually, diaper and stroller preferences. At some point, they might downsize and be in the market for retirement services.

Marketers have reliably tapped into these traditional life-stage moments and events to connect with and target consumers. But the COVID-19 crisis, the subsequent economic fallout and the impact from prolonged quarantines have all combined to upend Americans’ life and career paths, both now and into the future.

As a result, marketers need to rethink their strategies, their messaging and their targeting tactics when trying to reach consumers entering and exiting various life stages or life transitions—while also recognizing new groups, behaviors and attitudes that have emerged during this period.

So what do brands do now?

While it’s true that we are living in unprecedented times, there are new patterns emerging that can help marketers realign their strategies—and quickly. The year of lockdowns and social distancing has created new life stages and life transitions that marketers can integrate.

To help, WarnerMedia, in partnership with cultural anthropologist Susan Kresnicka at KR&I, researched these societal changes. This data, released in its new report, “Beyond Demographics and Generation: Life Transitions & Consumer Connection,” shows that many traditional marketing truisms no longer apply, and that marketers need to really think through their assumptions while revising their playbooks.

Through our research, we identified 26 different life stages and transitions, spanning ages 13 to 70, and we found common traits among who the world revolves around, namely me, us and you.

  • Me: People in this life stage and transition have a primary focus around individuated identity. It can be relatively easy to meet needs surrounding identity and self-care, but more challenging to meet needs surrounding social connection.
  • Us: These people are in the process of melding identities and balancing self-care with us-care. It can be easy to meet needs surrounding social connection, but more challenging to navigate and negotiate needs surrounding identity and self-care.
  • You: People in this life stage and transition have others reliant on them, making it difficult to maintain a sense of self outside the caregiving role. It can be challenging to meet needs surrounding identity and social connection, and often very difficult to meet self-care needs.

It’s not just transitions that have been impacted by these highly unusual times. Our research found that 85% of consumers are looking for brands to solve their problems, while 73% say they are looking for brands to enrich their lives.

With this in mind, here are four key takeaways that marketers need to know to quickly navigate our new environment:

1. How we progress through life stages and transitions is just different now.

It’s worth noting that the traditional linear life path was already being reshaped prior to 2020. People have been getting married and starting families later over the past few decades, for example. Millennials have been moving around from job to job (or career to career) far more frequently than boomers—whereas boomers are living longer than previous generations and sticking around the workforce in bigger numbers.

Now COVID-19, extended quarantines and employment uncertainty, among other factors, all have pushed some transitions forward, thrown others off-kilter and created entirely new life moments. Weddings have been delayed, retirement has come early for some, and younger generations have moved back home or left the cities in search of more space.

At the same time, we’re seeing a new wave of pandemic-driven life moments, such as people investing in home offices, technology for virtual schooling or home exercise equipment. There’s a huge opportunity for brands in these categories to capitalize on these trends with the right messaging and timing.

In other words, people need help and comfort and are looking for marketers to provide it. Indeed, people turn to products, services and their favorite entertainment to cope with life's challenges, and as a result spending habits change and priorities shift.

2. How we consume media and interact with advertisers has been blown up.

The pandemic, the election and all the other events of 2020 have thrust into the spotlight just how much media consumption patterns have been shifting.

For instance, streaming video was already surging pre-2020, and this year the use of connected TV has exploded. Similarly, as so many of us sought both escapism and connection, gaming has broadened across multiple age groups.

Interestingly, our research has also shown a great appetite for nostalgia. How many of us couldn’t wait to stream the recent “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” reunion? Respondents told us that nostalgic programming helps them feel more optimistic and inspired about the future—something everyone could use right now. Thus, there’s an opening for the right media companies and brands to provide this comforting content and to associate themselves with it.

3. We’re still coming to grips with how the pandemic has affected people’s psyches—and brands can play a supportive role.

On one hand, people have shown an increased propensity for shopping online—consider the record $10.8 billion in sales tracked during Cyber Monday. On the other hand, people are anxious about their jobs, their health and their families. We’ve seen corporations take measures to help cater to the needs of remote workers, many of whom may be feeling detached. Overall mental health awareness is higher than ever, and brands need to exhibit sensitivity.

Our research found that marketers must consider the moment consumers are living through and identify how they are trying to meet their needs through identity, self-care and social connection.

4. Advertising still plays a crucial role during these challenging times.

While there was perhaps a moment during the early stages of the pandemic when many were questioning whether people even wanted to hear from brands, the good news is that time has passed. Consumers are receptive to marketers right now, and in many cases they’re actually leaning into their favorite brands.

Our overall takeaway? The order in which life transitions occur has clearly been flipped on its head, and there are several new transitions in the mix, but key moments remain a powerful tool for identifying consumers who are open to new brands. That said, the old tactics likely won't cut it. CMOs need to develop strategies for targeting based on transitions and stages. They’ll need new sources of data to help them get there, and targeting may become more about mindset and psychographics while moving away from age and sex.

Overall, despite how “different” the world is today, the underlying connection between share of voice and share of market does not change. Marketers still need to get people’s attention at the right time—even if “time” doesn’t exactly mean what it used to.