Insight & Research

June 24, 2020

Risk & the consumer mindset

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It’s late April in a coastal town in southern England.  The weather is mild, the skies grey and there is a dampness in the air that suggests rain later.  The weather seems a perfect fit for a town gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Nationally, thousands are dying and the UK looks set to over-take Italy as the European country hit hardest by Covid-19 mortalities.

Amidst all this, the first ice cream parlour to re-open its doors since lockdown has a queue of more than thirty people.  They are lined-up along a brick wall, attempting a loose and often inaccurate form of social distancing.  A4 signs reminding the people in the queue to “stay safe” are tacked to the wall, just above the head-height of most.

Like the rest of the country, the town has been gripped by fear, perceived threat and a looming sense of existential insecurity.  The high-street is empty.  Even the popular seafront esplanade has been bereft of people for much of the time.  Yet there are queues for ice cream.  The weather is cold enough to warrant some people to be wearing scarves.  What is the attraction? Where has the fear of death gone, suddenly?  What does this tell us about the human experience and management of risk?

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The evaluation of risk has grown into a complex a highly-specialised science.  From insurance and the financial sector more broadly, right through to local governance, the assessment of risk is central to our lives.

For the most part, risk is identified and defined rationally, calibrated with a cold rationalism.  However, human beings are spectacularly different in the way they ‘calculate’ risk in relation to themselves and their lives.  Gone is the hard rationalism of professional risk assessment.  In its place we have an emotion-infused melting-pot of often disconnected fragments of experience, lay wisdom, happenstance and conviction.

These points are a statement of fact, not a moral judgement.  Our attitudes to risk make us who we are and help brighten the lives we lead.  They also mean that human beings do the unexpected.  The challenge is how to understand risk differently in the context of real everyday lives and the choices people make.  Only if we are able to do this, will we be properly able to engage consumers and shoppers in the Covid futures that lie ahead.

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So what does a queue of more than thirty people waiting to buy ice cream tell us about everyday human assessment of risk?  Quite a lot actually.

The people in the queue on that grey April afternoon were buying more than ice cream.  They were also buying the symbolic value of the ice cream experience, and in particular the emotional value that this would bring to their lives.

Ice cream is a symbolic representation of ‘the good life’ and an objectification of memories, almost always those of happy days.  In this sense, it is something to lift the ‘darkness’ of times of a crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.  Buying ice cream as a seasonal first is also the marking of time and the welcoming of summer (itself a time when there are more reasons to be cheerful).

Seen in this way, the obvious risk of standing in a queue with other people for half an hour is off-set by the emotional rejuvenation that the experience delivers.  The risk of contagion becomes less than the opportunity to feel normal, to put aside worries and to help nurture emotional well-being.  In this scenario, ice cream wins the risk value equation.

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The ice cream queue also helps us to think about another important area of everyday human risk assessment – that of tangible benefits.  Human beings, particularly during times of potential jeopardy and/or insecurity, often look at situations with the lens of ‘what’s in it for me?’  It is a simple value-equation that is used to assess whether (a) risk should be contemplated in the first place and (b) whether the risk of action is outweighed by the benefits of that action.

Importantly, the prospect of instant gratification is often extremely important in helping to weight the value equation in favour of action.  Like those people in the ice cream queue, the desire for gratification now is a strong heuristic and often key to risk-taking during times of perceived threat.  In a time of crisis like this, driving shopper or consumer behaviour often requires a clear presence and promise of instant gratification.

What we are seeing here is also a shift in role and importance of time horizons.  Covid-19 has made us all think about possible futures, whether related to health or financial well-being.  The flip-side is that life can also seem like a monotonous stitching-together of ‘nows’ that flow endlessly on.  There is a psychological need for an enriched experience of ‘now’, one that allows us to dwell in a happier psychological state.

The ice cream queue shows us that there is a desire for a different kind of ‘now experience’.  The question, then, is what can you do to give people the gift of now?

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Ultimately, human beings crave memories.  Not just those locked-away from previous months, years or decades, but the new, the fresh, the immediate.  We are supreme memory-makers.  Our cognitive and social well-being requires the regular making of memories.  Ideally, these memories will be shared with significant others – family, friends, networks.

The anticipation or promise (implicit, explicit, perceived) of memory-making can be the catalyst to action.  Importantly, memory-making is also a vital component in the risk value equation, particularly during times of jeopardy or perceived threat.  The greater the promise of memories, the lesser the ‘default protection’ – where people withdraw to, or remain within, a ‘safe place’.

The stronger the memory-making incentive, the more likely people are to weight the equation in favour of doing, rather than not doing.  That is why people queue for ice cream at the height of pandemics, putting themselves and others in potential danger.  It is also why people queue at Disneyland and at airports in holiday season, enduring hours of unhappiness.  Memory-making is an essential human need.

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Solutions may vary by context, but it is useful to put down some guidelines for encouraging your target market and getting them to push aside perceived risk in favour of shopping your store, eating your food, or buying your services.  Four points are particularly relevant:

1. Symbolic value: what is the symbolic value of the product, experience or service you are providing?  Will the consumer be taken to ‘a better place’ by engaging with you?

2. Instant gratification: what can the shopper or consumer ‘get’ as a result of engaging with your offer? This should not solely be about what is bought –at least part of the gratification should be without cost.  In what way does the experience provide more than simply getting what is needed?

3. Memory-making: in times of crisis, people crave happy memories.  These help with mental well-being, provide ‘return experiences’ (through remembering) as well as uplifting conversational currency.  What memory-making stimulus are you providing?

4. Default protection:  if the emotional triggers are not sufficient, people will revert to states of ‘default protect’ – the risk will be seen as too high.  This is also emotionally-rooted, and often has no grounding in real risk.

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Playing the risk game means beating default protection through harnessing instant gratification and symbolic value, both of which enable positive memory-making.

In a Covid future, retailers, brands and service providers will need to get better at helping consumers and shoppers mitigate risk.  This will mean thinking like human beings, not as rational, detached, risk assessments experts.  The good news is that despite the prevalence of detachment, where professionals (marketers, sales, insight professionals etc.) look down on the world, we are all human at heart.  It shouldn’t take too much effort to make the appropriate connections.

Perhaps ice cream thinking is the real solution.  Why don’t we imagine what would encourage our target audience to make an unnecessary trip, whether physical or digital?  Why don’t we embrace everyday risk as a catalyst to meaningful innovation? Why don’t we see this crisis as the opportunity to re-frame what we do and how we do it?

The danger, and we are seeing it everywhere, is that businesses pull-back, hunker-down and weather the storm.  Why, then, expect people to buy your products and visit your stores?  In reality, the movement away from doing something positive is precisely the action that helps set in motion a default protection scenario.  The negative risk and value equations are often fuelled by commercial indecision and a lack of belief.  There is another way.

 

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