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How life events change buying habits and why brands must advertise during a crisis

Advertising budgets plummeted by 40% in March-April 2020 as advertisers experienced a seismic shock as coronavirus continued its global spread. Many businesses have stopped advertising altogether. I believe that’s a mistake. I believe that the COVID19 crisis is becoming a global life event that will change our buying habits forever.  
Just like marriage, having a child, retiring, or graduation. It’s the time when people not only tend to switch brands but also change their values and their lifestyles. This is a unique opportunity to appeal to a new person who’ll never be the same. And now is the time when you must continue advertising.

A strange thing happened the other day. I ordered from a big discount grocery store, and not just that, I found myself recommending the experience to all my friends. It may not be a strange occurrence to some but it signified a big buying behavior for me as I’ve always been the type of consumer who’d buy a few groceries locally on my way or grab the ingredients for dinner while my daughter is in ballet class. I also love shopping at local businesses in my town. But something new happened to me in March 2020. The coronavirus quarantine and social distancing became part of my life and quickly evolved into what consumer science calls a life-changing consumer event.

Although I tried shopping locally, many of the businesses closed and the shelves in our local grocery stores remained half empty for more than a month and my kids still needed toilet paper, hand soap, and their pasta sauce. The online store had everything I needed and it was delivered in 3 days. And I will probably be shopping there again.

How life events change buying habits

Our life is mostly built on routines and habits. We drink the same coffee, shop in the same places and take the same route to work. A habit is a pattern of behavior, something we’re doing regularly without giving it much if at all, though. In the consumer context, a buying habit or habitual buying behavior refers to purchasing the same brand again and again but not necessarily due to brand loyalty but rather the lack of dissatisfaction and the absence of problems with the product. As the saying goes, if it’s ain’t broke don’t fix it.

But then our lives break. Something happens and disrupts our lives. This even can be a negative or a positive one, an event that changes the very fabric of our life, what’s known as a Life Event.

Life events are discrete experiences that interrupt and even disrupt our day-to-day habitual activities, causing a substantial change and readjustment.  Life events also impact our buying behavior and change our buying habits. Whether it’s having a baby, buying a house, getting married, retiring, or living through a global pandemic, these are stressful life events that often cause us to reconsider our lifestyles and switch brands as a result.

Life events make you want to try new brands

In 2016 Jenny Riddell and Richard Shotton (Choice Factory) asked 1,121 people which life events they’d undergone in the last year such as starting a new job, getting married or divorced, or retiring, and whether they’d tried new brands in the last year. Their research revealed that people were 75% more likely to try new brands following life events, in more than half of the categories the likelihood doubled. Richard Shotton did the study again in 2018 and this time people were even more likely (2.5X) to try new brands and 21% ended up switching brands.

The most important finding was that life events disrupt buying habits in unrelated categories, like trying a new beer brand following a divorce, or a new clothing brand following buying a house. Essentially, when our old life falls apart, we want to try something new, anything new.

Life events change buying lifestyles

In 2003 Anil Mathur found that our brand preferences change especially following life events that signify transitioning into new roles. These life changes create stress, forcing us to adapt to new life circumstances and causing us to change our entire consumer lifestyles. Such is in the case of an outbreak of a global pandemic, we become remote educators, tech centers, and first aid emotional support. None of us have experienced anything similar before. We’re simply trying to deal with the negative psychological conditions by reassessing everything we do which often leads to changes in brand preferences. When old routines fall apart and we’re exhausted and overwhelmed, our old buying habits quickly become irrelevant and new shopping routines emerge with new brand loyalties up for grabs.  

Now is the time to continue advertising

The entire world has now been social distancing and adjusting to a new reality for 3 months, the NYC metro (where I live) is just starting slowly re-opening some outdoor activities. We are all going through a collective life event, that will continue as we come out from social distancing through the upcoming months. This is a major life event that has been extremely stressful for many people, much more than starting college or getting married so there may be even more brand switching.

The conclusion here is that now is definitely not the time to stop advertising simply because you don’t want to b forgotten in the turmoil. Brands are not people and although people do connect to brands they like, if they don’t see you through a crisis for 3 months, you can quickly become irrelevant. There are some obvious changes, such as the basic requirement for digital and remote learning that require many changes in your business, but it’s more than that. We are in an era when our core values and who we is shuttered and there is no better opportunity to capture this newfound attention.  

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Nice to meet you

Helen Evenchen

Digital marketing strategist, wanderer, insighter, foodie, a mom. I’m also the marketing psychology geek behind Insightout Digital.
I have an MBA in consumer behavior and have been helping businesses big and small and teaching MBA students since 2004. I love helping entrepreneurs and eComm businesses just like you grow exponentially using systematic methods rooted in real human psychology and behavioral economics research.