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Marketing for the essential versus the indulgent


In a cruel twist to media organizations, and despite record-high web traffic and cable news ratings, people just are not purchasing non-essential items during this stunning sheltering, except for essential services.

Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair describes the media landscape as a Darwinian moment. Print media was already in decline before the pandemic, so there is no surprise that there is a continued rapid and significant loss to magazines and newspapers. Ad revenue is needed to pay the bills. Keeping up with changes to specific news reporters on radio, television and the remaining publications is a growing challenge for public relations professionals — so much for benefiting from building long-term press relationships, a PR mantra.

Journalists, too, are facing furloughs, pay cuts and dismissal. Yet people still need quality and timely news reporting, and many believe this segment will sort itself out. Publications with financial capitalization or streamlined cost models are likely to weather the storm.

For television and other digital media, it is rather hard to promote products between segments on air or web videos reporting serious coronavirus patient loss numbers. Pivoting broadly from product sales, a large number of companies are using rapidly produced image ads to maintain a positive presence, and many are helping with important causes for those in need.

Beyond cable news ads, even the late night comedians are working from home and stressing support of charitable giving to diverse causes. Celebrities are also using their fame and talents to produce programs on television and digital forums along with corporate sponsors. These efforts make effective use of media forums during this unforeseen era and help brands create community.

So what’s next?

As noted in a recent story, neuroscience-marketing firm Neuro-Insight has been leading the way in determining how marketers can move forward as customers define for themselves what is essential versus indulgent. The firm believes there will be a shift in purchase decisions as the weeks of isolation grow.

For example, takeout food ordering usage increased significantly after several weeks. The subconscious, they believe, takes over the conscious decisions. Takeout food is now seen as less indulgent.

Cultural experiences add to this complexity but brands need to understand the changing decision-making of consumers.

Rather than asking customers if ad marketing messages were effective, Neuro-Insight asked them about their personal impact from self-isolation. Panic has actually increased with isolation time for individuals queried. Such panic sets in when basic needs such as sustenance, identity etc. are not met.

Key words such as alcohol, food, and clothing were then probed with a quick-response approach to determine if the items were still considered essential or indulgent over time isolated.

Customer feelings are “faster than thought,” according to Neuro-Insight researchers. As isolation times increased, items such as clothing were deemed less self-indulgent.

The neuroscientists suggest brands now need to work to engage with customers with increasing relevance, and to start differentiating themselves from the earlier cause marketing community scenarios. As expected, the companies are advised to create their own differential path “in meaningful, creative, and first-of-its-kind” directions.

Understanding your perspective of customers’ needs arising from the stress of the pandemic is important for marketers and for media planners who seek the best target audiences for their ads.

Glenda LeGendre is principal of Marketing & Strategic Communications and can be reached at