How Brands Can Use Value to Build Deeper Customer Connections and Drive Lasting Loyalty


This article was written by Jamie Perry, Client Partner at Material

Wherever you look today, you’ll witness the ongoing struggle between brands’ need to raise prices due to rising costs and consumer perceptions of value. Consider McDonald’s pioneering move, introducing the Happy Meal in 1979: for a mere $1.10, patrons received a veritable feast of hamburger, fries, a drink, cookies and a toy. Fast forward to today and that same combo now commands around $7, its exact price shaped by regional disparities and modern ordering and delivery options like Uber Eats. Yet, amid inflation, pandemics and economic upheavals, this seven-fold increase seems almost modest. But the indelible imprint on human memory of a time when value was seemingly abundant means consumer expectations around value are misaligned with today’s realities.

In the dynamic world of modern retail, the concept of value transcends mere economic considerations; it encompasses a multifaceted interplay of factors. Yes, price matters, but so do the intangible aspects—like the ability of a product or service to foster connections with people, or its convenience and simplicity. Brands that grasp this complexity wield a powerful tool: the ability to tap into emotional needs through the cultural codes and signals they communicate.

Enter VUCA—a term coined by the US military in 1987 to encapsulate the challenges of a post-Cold War era marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Sound familiar? We’re living in a time rife with VUCA, where analyzing, responding to or planning for the future feels like navigating a turbulent sea. In such times, consumer perceptions of value, which usually strike a balance between rationality and emotion, now lean much more heavily towards the emotional side.

This shift places greater emphasis on the myriad factors that contribute to human emotion, thus shaping the decision-making process. These decisions are often in service of psychological safety and a desire to protect core fundamental needs. Humans adjust their mindsets and preferences to cope using some common mechanisms that increase a sense of control, such as acting rather than waiting around, identifying patterns to increase predictability and doubling down on values to validate one’s sense of self. So, while savings are important, understanding and addressing emotional needs that help consumers feel more secure becomes paramount.

How, then, can brands navigate these turbulent waters while simultaneously upholding perceptions of value? By delivering exceptional customer experiences grounded in psychological needs.

Encouraging Exploration

In times of uncertainty, consumers are more willing to try new things, seeking solace in novel experiences as evidence that they have some sense of control over their direction. This inclination toward action presents an opportunity for brands to innovate—to offer new products, reinvent core propositions or even disrupt existing habits.

But disruption isn’t always about upending the status quo; it can also mean providing consumers with new options within familiar territory. Customization becomes key, allowing consumers to shape their experiences according to their preferences.

For example, brands can enable personalization through product bundles, where customers can mix and match items to create their ideal package. Additionally, they can provide online platforms or mobile apps that allow consumers to personalize product features such as flavor, ingredients and packaging designs. By empowering consumers to tailor their experiences to their individual tastes and needs, brands not only foster a sense of control but also create deeper, more personal connections with their audience.

Clarifying Complexities

During uncertain times, humans naturally seek patterns in their environment to better understand and anticipate future events. Historically, identifying patterns in nature provided advantages for survival. This innate drive towards sense-making provides an opportunity for brands to assist consumers in navigating ambiguity and gaining a sense of control.

For example, brands can streamline product options and offer clear differentiation to help consumers navigate their purchasing decisions with confidence. By simplifying the choices available to consumers and making it easier for them to discern between products, brands can alleviate decision fatigue and cognitive overload.

This clarity empowers consumers to make decisions that make the most sense in their lives, without feeling overwhelmed by ambiguity or uncertainty, leading to greater value perceptions and loyalty towards the brand.

Validating the Self

Reflecting on core values helps people validate who they are when there is uncertainty. These core values are what ultimately help us prioritize and drive actions. By aligning products and services with the values and identities of their customers, CPG brands can play a pivotal role in providing reassurance and stability amidst fluctuating circumstances.

Fostering meaningful engagement opportunities and cultivating a sense of community around shared values can significantly enhance a brand’s perceived value. Brands that provide platforms for customers to participate in meaningful initiatives, share their stories or identities and connect with like-minded individuals not only deepen customer loyalty but also position them as invaluable allies in customers journeys.

In essence, the concept of value isn’t static; it’s a dynamic interplay of economic, emotional and experiential factors. By understanding and adapting to the nuances of consumer behavior in times of uncertainty, we can find ways to drive perceptions of “worth paying more for” or “justifying the premium price.” Value isn’t just a function of price. It is also about identifying what matters most to consumers in the context of the category and ensuring those factors resonate and stand out at the point of communication and sale, so that brands can not only weather the storm but emerge stronger, forging deeper connections with consumers and driving lasting loyalty.

To learn more about how Material’s capabilities in behavioral science and deep human understanding can unlock value for your brand, reach out today.