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Why Understanding Consumer Psychology Is So Important

Discover how to shift strategies to meet emerging consumer needs and establish a sustainable competitive advantage — in 2021 and beyond.
Date published:
Why Understanding Consumer Psychology Is So Important

From a behavioral science lens, one of the most remarkable aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is the degree to which people across the globe participated in a shared experience.

While local outbreaks, political response, and personal impacts varied, the emotional impact of the pandemic was similar for just about all of us, and these impacts have shifted our behaviors and preferences.

Though much of this period has been largely unpredictable, our behavioral response was not. The ways that humans respond and adapt to immediate and long-term threats are well documented by decades of psychology research.

We can draw on this knowledge to help us understand what we just went through (stress and trauma), what we’re going through (coping), and what we hope to get to (recovery and resilience).

By understanding how emotions, motivations, and less-conscious aspects of psychology impact the behavior of key customer segments, brands can help shape a better future.

The behavioral science of stress and coping

How has 2020 shaped the way we think? Throughout the year, each of us has experienced acute stress (an unmasked stranger walking toward you in the grocery store) and chronic stress (worrying if your family members are being safe) to varying degrees.

We know through a robust body of biological and psychological research that stress and the associated state of fear are highly influential in the way we think, act, and feel.

Our brains have evolved to have a specific reaction to threats. Immediate threats typically cause us to freeze, and our brains direct our bodies to divert resources toward responding with fight or flight. Our heart rate and pulse increase, our digestion slows, and our minds are vigilant for any clues.

However, chronic threats tend to cause low-level constant stress, like anxiety. Instead of freezing, we’re primed to act. We feel jumpy. We’re constantly scanning for signs that we need to bring up the full-blown fear response.

Though these emotions initially evolved to help us avoid predators, they are still very relevant today so we can avoid getting hurt in new, modern ways (like recoiling when someone invades our social distancing bubble).

In order to counteract stress, we often engage in coping — a form of emotional regulation where we seek out things that help us feel more positive.

Traditional ‘comfort foods’ like canned soups and boxed mac and cheese flew off the shelves early in the pandemic. Why? Because they provided a culinary safety blanket, both transporting us to better, simpler times and providing security while we waited for more perishable items to be restocked.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve coped by pursing experiences that help us feel safer and more secure, or feel more like ourselves. We’ve collectively tried to focus on the positive.

Using consumer psychology to serve basic human needs

As we look forward, it’s hard to make long-term predictions based on the temporary behaviors which helped us make it through a demanding episode of history.

Instead, we should focus on the coping behaviors that have the potential to stick around — that is, those that satisfy fundamental needs that have been suppressed and underserved during the stressful episode. It is these fundamental behaviors that can inform communications, products, and experiences that better resonate with and serve consumers.

With the initial shock of the COVID-19 virus in the rearview, many consumers have moved from a place of panic and coping to adopted a new wave of normalcy.

Re-evaluating our fundamentals

If this “new normal” shows us anything, it’s that when we can’t engage in the behaviors we’ve become accustomed to, we find new ways to satisfy our fundamental needs — what we call our BASE human needs, which are Belonging, Appeal, Security and Exploration.

The big challenge with behaviors that have been suppressed during the pandemic is trying to address the needs those old behaviors once satisfied in new, pandemic-friendly ways.

Uncovering white space innovation opportunities through social analytics

As humans, we’re very bad at predicting how we’ll feel in the future, a concept known as affective forecasting. Asking people what they think they will do will nearly always result in a more emotional and more favorable view of our predicted future.

Fortunately, we have access to a massive database of consumer interests, opinions, preferences, and behaviors on the Internet and can tap into it using smart tech-driven solutions.

Leveraging online anthropology

A method of advanced social analytics, online anthropology is an excellent tool for identifying blind spots, as well as finding white space opportunities for innovation.

The insights generated by online anthropology are applicable across a wide range of business objectives.

Through online anthropology, a bank can discover how to better serve their customers by identifying where they get lost in the debt cycle, or a food & beverage brand can identify early interest in Keto-friendly meals to uncover product positioning and innovation opportunities.

Ultimately, brands that shift their positioning, messaging, and innovation strategies to meet current and emerging consumer needs stand to gain a competitive advantage as consumers continue to become accustomed to life post-2020.

Of course, keeping your finger on the pulse of consumer behavior is the key to finding sustainable pathways for maintaining that advantage — through 2021 and beyond.

About the author

Lauren Murphy
Lauren develops creative approaches to help understand consumer behavior and why people sometimes say one thing but do another. As Research Scientist Director of Material's Pagrmatic Brain Science Insititute, she draws on her expertise in emotion processing, decision making, and behavior to produce meaningful insights and novel research approaches. Lauren joined Material in February 2018 and received a B.S. in Anthropology from Florida State University and a PhD in Psychology from Emory University.

Read more by Lauren Murphy
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