Yes, the pandemic has changed everything. But consumers are also feeling more empowered and less cynical

The pandemic has reshaped virtually every aspect of society, perhaps permanently. But new research from Montreal-based Crop contains some surprising conclusions about how it has changed Canadians’ attitudes. While it has been an undeniably difficult year for almost everyone, Canadians are actually feeling more empowered, less concerned about the future, and less cynical about our institutions and businesses.

Crop president Alain Giguere said that the company’s latest Panorama study, billed as Canada’s longest-running consumer and citizen values study, suggests a rising back-to-basics movement, with consumers displaying a more rational, logic-focused and less emotionally driven way of approaching their day-to-day life. These changes in attitudes come with implications for brands, said Giguere.

1. The rise of the empowered Canadian

One of Crop’s key findings is around the area of what Giguere has dubbed “Apocalyptic Anxiety”—basically an assessment of people’s attitudes towards the future based on their response to the statement: “Within the next 10 or 20 years there will be a major upheaval.”

The number of respondents who agreed with that sentiment had been trending upward since 2012, but Giguere suggests much of that fear was based more on a vague sense of unease–—created in part by sustained media coverage of potentially apocalyptic scenarios such as climate change and terrorism—than an immediate threat.

Many of those scenarios were hypothetical, but when actually faced with a real manifestation of their fears in the form of the pandemic, Canadians are actually displaying “renewed resilience,” said Giguere.

“Suddenly we’re living with a real crisis, this is not a scenario any more—it’s the real stuff, and it’s very bad,” he said. “It’s like if at this very moment, where we have to live in a very difficult crisis, Canadians stood up and felt more empowered. [They felt] like ‘There are solutions, and we will find them.'”

The number of respondents who agreed with the statement “Whatever we do, man’s destiny is predetermined and history takes its course” also fell from last  year, reversing a steady upward trend in the sentiment since 2009, when 28% of people felt that way. By 2019, the sense that humankind has no control over its collective destiny, had risen to 40% but dropped to 37% in the middle of the pandemic.

Even Canadians’ concerns they might not have enough money to live comfortably in the future, which had risen from 62% in 2008 to 68% last year, dropped to 64% this year, with Crop crediting robust government bailout programs in part for helping shift consumer sentiment—suggesting that government is here to support them through difficult times. At the same time, the number of people saying that the pace of life is too fast also fell, with Crop saying that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for people to slow down.

The brand implications: Brands can play a role in sustaining newfound consumer empowerment by establishing “credible and authentic” value propositions and providing a higher level of personalization and customization, said Giguere. Financial services companies, for example, should focus on their ability to help Canadians stay in control of their situation (instead of pushing harder to seize new opportunities); while car companies should focus on their vehicles’ control functions and the driving experience rather than their performance.

2. The decline of cynicism

Canadians have become increasingly cynical about government and corporations during the past decade, increasingly believing these groups have been acting in their own self-interest with no regard for individuals. Last year, 62% of Canadians agreed with the sentiment “When I think of politics, business, the scientific field or the media, I can no longer believe anyone, they all have something to sell us.” Agreement with that statement fell sharply—to 55%—this year.

The pandemic has also produced a renewed sense of duty and responsibility among Canadians, the idea that we need to do the right thing to deal with the situation. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (65%) agreed with the statement “I prefer people who, whatever happens, do their duty,” up from 59% the year before.

The study also noted a decline in people agreeing with the statement: “When you think a law is stupid, it’s OK not to obey it,” from a high of 25% last year, to 21% this year (although still considerably higher than 12% in 2004). The pandemic has reinforced the idea among consumers that this is no time to be disobedient, said Crop (an interesting finding given some of the recent high profile anti-lockdown protests).

Many brands have embraced the idea of purpose in recent years, but consumers are increasingly holding them to their word and looking for a manifestation of the values they espouse, said Giguere. “More and more, consumers like brands that have a soul,” he said. “Consumers have been looking for brands in which we feel this passion and authenticity.”

The brand implications: Giguere says that as Canadians come to feel a more entrenched sense of duty and responsibility, they’ll be looking to brands for the same. That means investing in social causes, but ensuring they go beyond merely paying lip service and demonstrating tangible action. “This is a fantastic opportunity for brands,” he said. “Canadians are willing and ready to give them a chance to show that they care. [They] should jump on that trend and do whatever they can to… show that they care.”

3. The pleasure of consumption remains

Crop’s conclusions about consumption, derived from questions related to enthusiasm for technology, attraction to innovation and attitudes towards advertising, produced what Giguere described as some of the most interesting findings in this year’s study.

The data suggested that while the pandemic has led Canadians to adopt a more cautious, rational and back-to-basics approach to consumption, buying something new still remains one of life’s greatest pleasures.

“We still have in our mind that consumption is one of the greatest pleasures in life, but we don’t have the means and the luxury to benefit from it anymore because the socio-economic threat of the pandemic is leading us to be very, very prudent,” said Giguere. “We are in a much more rational, fact-based way of looking at consumption.”

After hitting 39% two years ago, the number of people who agreed with the phrase “Typically I am the first person I know to try a new product or service” fell for the second straight year, to 30%.

And Canadians also revealed an increased skepticism about advertising this year. Two years ago, 33% of respondents agreed with the statement that if a product is widely advertised it will be a good product; last year just 30% agreed and this year it was down to 25%. (Though it’s worth noting that’s still well above the 12% who felt that way in 2014.)

There is also a shift towards what Giguere called “prudent adoption” of technology, reflecting a steady decline in the number of people who say they are excited by the possibilities presented by new technologies, from 39% in 2009 to 23% this year. “I’m not saying they won’t buy it, but I think people will wait to see that these new technologies [can] add something to their life,” he said, adding that they will evaluate their needs much more rationally than they have in the past several years.

The brand implications: In short, said Giguere, with consumers taking a much more rational and logical approach to purchasing, brands need to come up with a compelling answer to the consumer question, “Do I really need this?” That could mean an obsessive focus on the usefulness and practical aspects of their offers and value proposition. Content and offers should focus on a “what’s in it for me” positioning and take advantage of data for greater personalization.

Chris Powell