Emma Waterman, strategist, FutureBrand
For some time now much of the Western world has been living in a minimalist state of being. Conscious consumerism looms large, the likes of Uniqlo and Muji dominate the high street and much of the economy is geared around experiences over commodities.
But in the harsh light of the pandemic, it feels as though there's a shift underfoot. As we work to make sense of the austere world around us, we're swapping the simplicity revered by the likes of Marie Kondo in exchange for abundance. Starved of stimulation from the vivid world outside, we're bringing inspiration inside. Filling bookshelves, wardrobes and bathroom cabinets. Filling the gaping hole that's punctured our lives, where connection, experience and spontaneity once lived vicariously together. As the world around us shrinks, we expand where we can elsewhere. A reminder of pleasure and possibility.
Chart the course of the pandemic and you’ll see how consumer spending has surged and transcended categories, particularly in the digital arena. From home-grown darling Adore Beauty, which recorded a 85 per cent revenue spike in the second half of 2020, to global e-commerce giant Amazon, which saw sales double in the year.
Not only has the pandemic changed how we interact with the world, but how we interact with brands too. Our perceptions of and relationships with those we choose to buy from (or even work for).
Now in its seventh year, the FutureBrand Index is a global perception study that looks beyond the balance sheet to explore what it takes to transform brands to fuel growth. Year-on-year, our research shows that financial strength does not necessarily translate into brand perception strength. However, in 2021, against the backdrop of the pandemic, we've seen some real shifts in the rankings. At the top end of the Index, Apple is the only brand to have stayed the course, while others have soared up the ranks. LVMH has benefitted from the events of the last 12 months with a 29-place jump landing it in this year's Top Five Risers. Online shopping giants Amazon and Alibaba also experienced notable boosts in their respective positions.
In these times of uncertainty and loss, the tale of these rising retailers signals how those that can demonstrate their value and indispensability will thrive. These brands have benefited from their association in contributing to our quality of life, irrespective of whether or not they are directly involved in combating the pandemic. In particular, LVMH's ascent has been supercharged by a growing customer focus on luxury and a desire to seek pleasure, wherever we can, in lieu of pre-pandemic freedoms. Indeed, LVMH delivered a forecast-beating first quarter driven by demand in the US and China as customers sought to indulge and celebrate in what one of our respondents referred to as a 'high quality life.’
But does this consumerism purely come down to a feel-good factor, or is there more to it?
Perhaps it's a way for consumers to gain some sense of control, when much of what's unfolding around us is beyond our control.
Or is it the security we draw from the tangible and tactile things that ground us in the real world? As Jennifer Howard describes in Clutter: An Untidy History, "Stuff can act like a literal cocoon" when we want to feel safe and comfortable.
And what of the objects we buy? Are they pure remnants of consumerism, or are they cultural artefacts that express the very essence of who we are? As Elizabeth Chin writes in My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries, "Just as our thoughts have no meaning without language, our lives have no meaning without things through which to express who and what we are".
So maybe there's more at play: be it control, comfort or self-expression. But even if it's as simple as pleasure, it's worth considering this: can ‘things’ truly make us happy? And if so, for how long? The euphoric high we get opening the door to our latest parcel delivery will subside before long, only to be eclipsed by the search for the next hit. And as with all things in life, this strange time shall pass.
So what will become of this new-found desire for things once we're back in the real world? Will it persist? Or, once we're able to reconnect with others and claw back some sense of control, will the need to fill the void with things fade away? For brands experiencing a surge in sales at this time, it's worthwhile pausing and considering what next.
Consumerism may be a temporary solution for which people reach in times of uncertainty, but to ensure long-term, sustainable growth, connection and relevance, we need more than that. If we take Marx's word for it, the more we believe in things, the less we believe in people. Beyond products, brands mustn't lose sight of what they want consumers to believe in and connect with.
Even a cursory glance of our research shows the number one driver of why customers choose to buy from a company is the emotional connection they feel – and with a myriad of brands selling an incalculable number of products and services, there’s never been a more valuable time for emotion to take centre stage.
So, as we eagerly look towards the future, consumer brands should consider how they'll maintain their indispensability in the lives of their customers. How they’ll consider the totality of the human experience. And ultimately, how they’ll contribute to ongoing wellbeing when our lives become fuller once more.