A number of weeks ago I read a story concerning the manager of a public sector company who was given the unenviable task of firing his entire team, including himself, in eight hours. Funding for his department was being cut off, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
The manager could have taken the simple way out: he could have emailed the bad news to his team and left it at that. But he didn’t. Instead, he gathered his team together and explained the situation, that it was irreversible and that there was nothing they or he could do about it. But he didn’t end there. He ordered pizza for everyone. Over pizza, he helped each of his team members update their CVs to include their most up-to-date experience. Some of them were surprised at what they realised they could include. Some even started to feel a little excitement despite the circumstances. The manager then got his team members to all write references for one another, and he got involved too – and by the end of the day they all had up-to-the-minute CVs, fresh references and full stomachs.
In two weeks’ time, almost every member of the team had interviews for new jobs, and by the end of the month all were back in employment. Their previous manager hadn’t just fired them; he’d given them control in a time of total anxiety.
Bear this story in mind.
The anxiety trials
Those of you who have read White Light's Got Issues, our project dedicated to communicators and marketers, may be familiar with my exploits into the world of anxiety. You’ll also be familiar with the sight of my posterior – naturist swimming having been one of the exploits.
The purpose of the piece was to simultaneously introduce the theme of the issue (anxiety) and gauge the effects of anxiety upon an individual naïve to the condition. With no prior history of anxiety, no public relation to taint and no in-laws to consider, I was passed the buck. If you’ve not read it, you can do so here.
Writing the piece following my exploits, I was fascinated by the very real difference between every-day anxiety (ultimately what I experienced) and the altogether more serious matter of anxiety disorder – contextualised by my final challenge which was experiencing life the the homeless.
In the months following, however, I became aware of the sheer prevalence of every-day anxiety in our society. I noticed more and more complaints of anxiety, both in a professional and a personal capacity. Quickly browsing the news headlines on my phone before getting out of bed every morning made me feel anxious far more than informed. For the first time ever, I was conscious of being a part of the age of anxiety.
Brands in the age of anxiety
“Anxious consumers look to brands for informational and emotional reassurance”
The ad intelligence agency Exponential recently conducted some research into consumer spending. Beginning the day after the Brexit vote in 2016, the research considered some of the products and services currently enjoying the biggest sales increases, including:
• Cleaning products (+5.3%)
• Home automation (+83.8%)
• Bespoke financial services (+175.1%)
• Product reviews (+188.2%)
Despite the significant difference between these products and services, there is a common thread throughout: they all afford consumers a sense of control. Consumers are taking control of their purchasing decisions instead of taking brands’ words. They’re taking control of their money instead of handing it over to a bank oblivious to the consequences. They’re taking control of the functioning, and even the cleanliness, of their homes.
“Anxious consumers look to brands for informational and emotional reassurance,” say Exponential. “In these times, brands and advertisers should be taking a more informational approach when creating their campaigns to reposition their products as giving control back to consumers.”
As marketers and communicators, this is our duty. We should all – every one of us – be asking how our product, our service or our business can be repositioned as giving control back to consumers. Best of all, it doesn’t matter what our product, our services or our business is. We wouldn’t be in business if we weren’t able to give people control in some way. It could be a case of delivering sound internal communications to boost employee engagement, or of giving potential donors the assurance that their contribution to a cause is one more step towards us taking control of it for good, or of encouraging people to realise their dreams of starting their own business and giving them to the control to succeed.
The fact remains that in times of anxiety people crave control – and as communicators and marketers it’s our duty to ensure that we’re delivering that. Even when all seems lost – think back to our company manager who had to fire his entire team – communicating control can change everything. And the businesses and brands that focus on this as part of their marketing and communications strategies are the ones that will come out on top.