July 8, 2020

Why the five stages of grief can help brands re-engage with consumers

Matt Fischer

Chief Executive Officer

Many brands are likely contemplating how they should engage with consumers as the stay-at-home restrictions begin to ease. It's safe to say there is no playbook for events like COVID-19, and how brands pick up the conversation will be a very delicate balancing act. A close friend likened this COVID-19 experience to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This analogy resonated with me. 

Any brand that thinks it can pick up with customers where we left off in mid-March is in for a rude awakening. Everyone and I mean EVERYONE, has lost something in this world, and we are all grieving these changes in uniquely personal ways. Some lost loved ones to the virus, some lost their businesses, their savings, and over 35 million Americans lost their livelihoods. They lost deeply seminal experiences like the conclusion of a senior year of college or high school, until now an unimaginable concept. Parents were forced to become education experts in a single day. We lost all sense of normalcy and control.

In a fluid situation like we’ve experienced these last few months, a brand message packed with good intentions offered statements like, "we're in this together" or "we're here to help". Then suddenly, it was everywhere. The sentiments went from comforting to pandering almost overnight. Safety messages lecturing us to wash our hands and practice social distancing become equally annoying, especially if coming from a brand. So how can brands and agencies find the right approach? First, they must understand the stages of grieving and craft sound strategies to meet the consumers where they are and how they see the current situation. 


Let's start with denial. Denial is tricky, because it triggers a lot of self-deception and the fears that life as we know it will never be the same again. People in denial are most likely not paying a lot of attention to anything right now. 


Anger!!! We've all felt anger and disappointment when activities and events we looked forward to attending were canceled due to the virus. It starts to feel unfair at some point. Angry consumers will bring a ton of baggage when it comes to managing expectations. 


Bargaining is prevalent right now as consumers are flocking to comfort foods and revisiting past experiences hoping they will somehow feel better. Is this a long-term change? Who knows, but it definitely changes the brand-consumer relationship in so many categories right now. 


We all know, depression is nothing to take lightly. Consumers recognize their untethered feelings are not dissipating anytime soon, and the worries about the destruction of our economy are becoming overwhelming. Depression is insidious because it robs us of our energy and the notion we can affect outcomes. Which brands will they turn to for comfort?  


Finally, there is acceptance. It's positive and hopeful, but also very realistic regarding the challenges we face as we collectively and individually climb out of the COVID-19 hole. To get to acceptance, you must walk a hard road. 

In the current marketing environment, successful brands will need to be sensitive and recognize tacitly, if not overtly, the realities of consumer's lives as they wade back into the marketplace. The smart brands will be fiercely authentic, avoid trite clichés and chest-beating. Last but not least, this is probably a good time for brands to explore humor since we can all use a good laugh right now. 

Grief is a complicated emotional process. As consumers, we're looking for the simple recognition that we're taking it one step and one day at a time. 

Finding the right brand voice and tone will never be more critical than it is right now. Brands and their agencies should have these discussions right now and often, as the consumer landscape will likely change frequently in the coming months and years. And it’s ok to cry about that bit of uncertainty. Let’s all take it one day at a time.

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