Primal fears, consumer trends and Covid-19

Mukund Setlur is a Bangalore based B2B marketing professional with experience in IT services and products.

The fear of being ‘rejected’ by the opposite sex due to bad breath or pimples is an example of fear based marketing.

Another example of fear based marketing is the fear of shame also called “Ego death” by Dr. Karl Albrecht. Remember those ads and urging the CIO to buy anti-virus software or a data backup solution to ensure business continuity or face the wrath of his boss?

When I was exploring the reasons that drove panic buying during the pandemic and why people (at least in the West) hoard toilet paper, I realised that Covid-19 is a great melting pot of different primal fears. The demand for toilet paper along with hand wipes or sanitizers went up after the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to what psychologists call a “conditioned safety signal.”

It was presumed to be something that kept you ‘clean’ and hence ‘protected’ you from an unknown, invisible virus. Several hoarders who were interviewed, said they just blindly followed the action of other hoarders.

Let’s look at the use of fears in marketing.

Humans have 5 kinds of primal fears

1. Extinction -The fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist.
This is the first large-scale epidemic we have encountered in the information era. Deaths not just of renowned people but also lakhs across the world has had a personal impact. The fear of going extinct is very strong instinct.

2. Mutilation or Bodily Invasion 

This happens when you are faced with a feeling that something will invade your body or the feeling of being physically incapacitated due to an accident or a living being. It could be either a snake or a virus. Innumerable personal hygiene products, ranging from disinfectants to water purifiers have been addressing this primal fear.
3. Loss of Autonomy
The feeling of being entrapped or physically restricted involuntarily. The fear of being jailed and contained for an unknown period. Covid 19 restricted mobility of people. No one knew what length of home stay that is needed and within no time, the entire supply chain was thrown off gear. Various ads that seek to protect you after you retire, old-age retirement communities are examples that address this motivation.

4. Separation, Abandonment or Rejection

The need to belong to a community or person or being rejected is the single largest cohesive source that ensures adherence to the rules set by the society, country or religion. The examples can be seen in ads related to most products we use every day, ranging from grooming products to electronic goods.

5. Humiliation, Shame or Worthlessness

This primal fear can spring within or externally. This is a sense of not being able to fit or rise to situation which could be a fair or an unfair assessment.
Many articles are comparing the situation to the 2008 meltdown, the comparison is fair to an extent in terms of the economy or job loss. But the impact was short-lived.  When central banks and various governments pumped in money, economy bounced back. But the impact of Covid-19 will be felt for a longer duration, largely because there is a fear factor.

Consumers are irrational – here is how you can handle them. 

Here are a few trends:

Macro consumer trends

People were already evaluating their food choices in considering the impact it has an environment etc. More sections of people may consider the need to know about the source of the food they consume.  Blockchains in food industry will gain attention and customers won’t mind paying more.

Consumer studies from E&Y, MCKinsey have predicted that customers will be wary of making large value purchases.  This frugality will impact customer spending. People might try investing time and money on repair rather than replacement with a new product.

Personal hygiene and products that enhance hygiene are bound to grow.  The expanded market will benefit companies that have stronger brand recall and a wider range of products.

Sunshine product category – The acceleration or the deceleration on the product life cycle

Product life cycle plots the journey of products which could be in the stage of introduction, growth, maturity or decline. This pandemic will increase the speed of a few products on this life cycle.

As an example, virtual reality/ augmented reality (VR/AR) in education will move faster from introduction to the growth rates.  Online conferencing tools will see more growth, even in sectors that were relatively less online-savvy.  General insurance products, such as health insurance or travel insurance will see newer variants and increased levels of maturity.

The fear of pandemic could also mean green shoots for personal transportation, since public transport will be viewed with suspicion. Innovations in this space will see more backers in the future rather than technology firms.

Emergence of hero brands – Brands endorsed by people who have done something for the society in this period will be rewarded. Just the way superheroes are recognized.After saving the world.  Imagine the brand recall of the company that comes out with the Covid-19 vaccine and its subsequent stock prizes.

Diageo one of the makers of Vodka and Scotch Whiskey, gained attention for deciding to produce sanitizers. Back home in India, Goa Brewing company and Radio Khaitan gained press attention for their attempt to make sanitizers.  Mahindra and Mahindra similarly was lauded, toasted on social media for making ventilators!  And Asian Paints has launched hand and surface sanitizers, in addition to helping their supply chain and providing their employees with pay hikes.

No soothsayer, no matter how good, has predicted the future with accuracy. However, you need no soothsayer to say that these are interesting times and they have just begun.