Happy Valentine’s Day!

In the fitful early days of January, as the Omicron spike and bitter winter temps forced us back inside, I begrudgingly headed to the store to pick up some ice cream. Realizing that a winter hat, N95 mask, and sunglasses can look like a full-on disguise, I did not interact with the person who entered the shop alongside me. However, as soon as we crossed the store threshold, I heard my fellow patron let out an audible groan. “Uuugh!! Not Valentine’s Day….” I smiled at the person beneath my mask, creating an empty gesture of unspoken commiseration. This year, following what has felt like a forced holiday season cycle, shoppers are not feeling the love.

It has become a telltale sign of change when shops swap out seasonal decor to orient us throughout the year. In the pandemic world, it felt necessary to move through time based on visible markers and yet, we cannot cheerfully pretend that it’s business as usual. It has been a long hard two years for nearly everyone we’ve interacted with, and this presents unique challenges for businesses to keep their finger on the pulse of their community. We are left scratching our heads when familiar landmarks like cheerful red balloons, flashy florals, and chalky heart-shaped candies are met with disdain. Expectations for gifts or grand gestures have given way to stress and anxiety, rather than the annual uptick in diamond sales. Understanding that things have changed for the communities we serve is the first step we all need to take today. As marketers, we need to embrace change, and the only way forward is to figure out who our clients’ customers are, beyond knowing the websites they frequent. We simply cannot depend on third-party cookies as our sole source of information. The same marketing tactics that we’ve depended on for years will fall flat if we do not take into account just how much life is in flux for the communities we serve.

One example of this is how the stress of job changes, childcare, and school interruptions, coupled with sickness, have driven many relationships to the brink. According to a recent article in Forbes, one UK law firm reported a 122% increase in divorce inquiries during the pandemic. Our own Consumer Emotional Index (CEI) research that reaches out to 1,000+ consumers every quarter tells us that 58% of people are feeling “on guard” and 51% are having trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Finally, 76% of our respondents shared that they are worried that COVID-19 variants will slow down the overall pandemic recovery. We don’t share these grim statistics to feel lousy, but more so to ask the question: what do we need to do to support one another during these trying times? We know instinctively that everything has changed, but what does that mean to the campaigns and products that we develop?

Human interest stories and fundraising campaigns seem to be one way that we are transcending the isolation of the COVID-19 winter. Upworthy (a positive news aggregator) is now seeing north of 100 million views per month and popular social media giant Humans of New York has now collected millions of dollars to support individuals through storytelling. The increase in crowdfunding has shown that individuals want to be able to engage with one another and make a measurable difference in the life of someone else. Consumers are craving deeper and more meaningful connections, and they want to support brands that resonate with their values and identity. Our CEI data shows that 62% of consumers want brands to support their local community, and 54% said they want brands to help them achieve their goals. This is telling us—now more than ever—that our future success lies within our relationships. Showing the people we care about that they are seen, known, and valued is the new box of chocolates. It requires far more engagement than a shallow marketing strategy, but the rewards are profound. It’s the true difference between building a brand or simply having a collection of products.

This is a rare opportunity in time, when consumers are open to finding connections with brands. For those of us who have been in marketing for a long time, this may feel a bit scary. We are moving away from pitches and selling to a model that looks more like collaboration. When I talk with people about being a trauma-informed brand, it means creating an atmosphere of communication, empowerment, and trust. As a brand, how are you accomplishing this? Today, we are growing together with our community and allowing ourselves to be forever changed and impacted by the events of the last couple years. Listening carefully to what our consumers have been through, and how, when, and where to connect with them will enable a deeper kind of intentional brand/consumer relationship.

So, where does this lead us? Coming back around to my fellow shopper who was pained by the Valentine’s Day aisle, it means that our consumers want to be met where they’re at. They want us to remember that some folks out there are lonely and celebrating SAD (singles awareness day), are interested in only sustainably lab-grown diamonds, or have furry pets who can’t have chocolates around. As a brand, if you don’t know the answers to these questions, or ones like them, you are not asking the right questions. We need to take the time and make the effort to be more engaged brands, value consumer emotional data (i.e., their feelings), and establish lasting relationships with our communities. It can no longer be about selling. Our research and the CEI do just this; we ask all the questions you need and present the answers in an actionable way that is easy to understand. It means that it’s time for us to bring curiosity and awareness to our communications and campaigns. I wish I’d turned to that person in the shop and said, “Feels too soon for Valentine’s, right?!” I could have validated a little piece of truth for both of us before I hurried off. We have the power and it’s the right time to make this change and to usher in a new way of relational communication.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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