Brands stepped up during the pandemic and they need to do so again at a time when people are stressed over money, culture wars and disinformation, says UM’s Enyi Nwosu.

One of the very few positives to come out of the pandemic was brands taking a more active role in addressing consumers’ woes and making our lives feel a little easier – from fundamental shifts in products and services designed for hybrid working, to smaller everyday options in home delivery.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we are now woe-free – we have new ones. And the ongoing cost-of-living crisis is right at the top of the list.

At UM, we recently partnered with MoneySuperMarket and suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) to better understand the impact of rising costs on the UK’s mental health, through a research study and campaign named Money Talks.

The research revealed that advertisers and the media environment have to be just as mindful now of the external pressures on consumers as they were at the start of the pandemic.

The study found that 42% of UK adults are stressed over domestic bills. That is more than 17 million people who are worrying about money, every day. It showed that 38% of those surveyed have lost sleep, with more than a fifth having experienced feelings of inadequacy (23%) and isolation (26%) over money concerns.

As with every crisis, the most vulnerable are hit the hardest. Depressingly, low-income households, single parents, those with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community all score even higher. Most starkly, CALM has recorded a 45% increase in helpline calls since the start of the inflation crisis and the number one reason is money worries.

These alarming figures put the onus on our industry to act more responsibly than ever – and, crucially, not to add to people’s very real concerns.

Disinformation, division and deepfakes

Societal stress levels aren’t helped by the political climate. 2024 will be the biggest election year in history, with half the planet going to the polls. Look at the tone of debate in the UK and the US right now; we’re going to have to put up with this negativity until the autumn.

We are facing the ’three Ds’ of distress, all adding to the sense of overwhelm facing consumers: disinformation at every corner, division running rampant and now the spectre of deepfakes ensuring consumers have no idea who and what content to trust – just ask Piers Morgan and Oprah.

All this is at a time when the Edelman Trust Barometer puts trust in governments, NGOs and the media at historic lows – numbers that won’t be rising anytime soon.

Brands will have to step up and make extra effort to take the edge off an increasingly stressful world. They’ll have to understand the issues facing their audiences, assess the potential mental health impact of everything they do, and offer something of value – whether that’s an idea for saving money or even just a gem of humour at a difficult time.

There is a clear demand for this and people do want brands’ help. Notably, the Money Talks research highlighted that three-quarters of consumers (74%) would welcome financial advice from brands.

Retail and finance scored highest when people were asked which sectors featured brands that are most helpful when it comes to the cost of living. In each case, still only a quarter (25%) of consumers agreed they were doing enough.

Trust, responsibility and transparency

People may be open to hearing from brands, but how they communicate is significant: 60% want them to display increased sensitivity to people’s financial struggles. With the media environment under greater scrutiny than ever in this election year, the brand considerations of most consequence should be responsibility and transparency.

Brands have a duty to be honest to build trust – about how they use AI and influencers in campaigns, and about their sustainability credentials. For example, Google and Meta are taking note of legitimate public concerns around generative AI by talking about digital watermarking as a way to demonstrate content origination.

The most recent IPA Bellwether underlines the sector’s ongoing digital-first shift, so it’s never been more important to remember there’s a human at the end of every brand impression we deliver. Authenticity should be the watchword – real people, real emotions and real struggles.

Community, belonging and membership

The cost-of-living crisis affects everyone. And in a divisive media environment, brands have an opportunity to create meaningful connections by bringing people together through shared experiences – even negative ones – to create a sense of community. That’s worth remembering in a political climate that feeds polarisation.

The values of belonging and membership cannot be overstated – and how we create them certainly isn’t new territory given the last five years. At the height of the pandemic, retailers and brands understood where we all were, physically, financially and emotionally, and created experiences, services and campaigns around a shared societal context.

So now, who do people talk to about their concerns in a world where trust in the cornerstones of society is limited? Who can bring stressed and anxious audiences together? Who can ensure their AI-generated content is flagged as such and their spaces are welcoming, safe, inclusive and supportive?

If not brands, then who?