In an era of perma-crisis, consumers are changing their behaviours. Paul Greenwood of We Are Social takes the pulse of social media and suggests how brands can react.

Economic downturns have long been catalysts for cultural shifts, bringing about changes in people's perspectives, behaviours, and interactions with the world. 

The Great Depression, for example, led to the rise of nationalism and isolationism as people sought reassurance through their hardships, yet it also acted as the stimulus for significant social movements as people tried to improve their lives and combat the inequality exacerbated by the crisis. Further, it created the conditions for new forms of artistic expression as people made sense of their circumstance and processed a changing world.

Look and you will find interesting examples from every period of economic change, whether in decline or growth, and we are also observing it today. 

However, the current cost-of-living crisis is contextualised by unique contemporary factors, significantly the deep integration of social media into our lives. Today’s high inflation is also part of a broader and complex “perma-crisis” – multiple overlapping crises (or major cultural shifts) with no singular or linear way out. It encompasses issues such as climate change, wealth inequality, a decline in institutional trust, the pandemic, and war.

Consumer and influencer behaviour is changing

To make sense of how social media users and online culture have been affected, We Are Social recently partnered with Statista Q to conduct research into the impact of the current economic conditions on social media use. The findings reveal a significant shift in user behaviour and online culture as people increasingly seek relatable and valuable content to navigate these challenging times. 

Statista Q analysed responses from 2,000 social media users in the US and UK, finding that 45% of those questioned, particularly among the Gen Z demographic (62%), are actively seeking money-saving tips and content since the onset of the crisis. Moreover, 26% of respondents are now more inclined to click on or purchase budget-friendly products advertised or shared on social media. People are changing their purchasing habits, social media consumption and their decision-making processes. 

The role of influencers is evolving to help users find affordable alternatives and we’re seeing the rise of the “de-influencing” era, which started to gain traction globally in January 2023. More than half of social media users (59%) affirm that influencers have aided them in discovering cheaper product options. Additionally, users observe a noticeable shift in the tone and content of influencers, as they transition from aspirational to relatable. 

Nearly half of adult social media users (43%) believe that creators on social media are more considerate of their audience's spending power, and an overwhelming majority (78%) perceive influencers who flaunt luxury items as out of touch.

The impact of the cost-of-living crisis extends beyond influencers and users' content choices. People are altering their own behaviour on social media platforms as well. While 48% of users believe their accounts reflect a realistic portrayal of their lives, a notable proportion (15%) admit to toning down their posts to avoid appearing ostentatious in the current economic climate. 

New cultural trends are emerging 

Stemming from the research findings, it has been possible to identify the most significant cultural shifts and behaviours that brands should pay attention to and potentially leverage. These largely arise from changing perceptions of value, which traditionally have been defined by cost and price. However, we found that people are redefining and stretching that meaning.

The “knowledge flex” is a phenomenon growing within the creator economy where value is expressed by showing off what someone knows rather than what they have. As the cost-of-living crisis has tightened, influencers are helping people find cheaper options, and social media users are leveraging knowledge to make more informed decisions to protect their wallets. 

Alongside behaviours such as de-influencing (or showing people where not to spend), we’re seeing the showcasing of personal craftsmanship and DIY, and growing traction of how-to videos as people seek cost-effective solutions and prioritise knowledge over excessive spending.

The rejection and rebuilding of old ideals of value also characterise the concept of “new materialism”. We find that people are challenging the harm caused by the worst excesses of capitalism and seeking to reclaim value from institutions of power. 

There’s been a proliferation of online content that seeks to separate material value from symbolic value, something that kick-started the #dupe and #reps trends of getting cheap clones of high-end products. Then there’s the rise of mobilised fandoms, such as Taylor Swift fans uniting in legal action against Ticketmaster; and people flipping highbrow and lowbrow norms, redefining and inverting old systems of value.

Performative denial” has seen people construct and edit particular narratives through social media. This isn’t about people simply living in denial but a collective performance with online communities ‘in’ on the performance. We’ve also seen people code switching, with celebrities hiding ostentatious symbols (known as #recessioncore or quiet luxury), and average joes on low incomes role-playing old money and the rich life.

More broadly, across social we see people taking a detached approach towards money and value – commenting on the cost-of-living crisis the same way people would a passing internet fad or fashion aesthetic. 

These behaviours reflect the gap between the haves and have nots, with younger generations seeking escape and identity through fictionalised narratives and a uniquely nonchalant humour.

How brands can respond

These significant and often nuanced cultural trends should keep brands on high alert. They certainly highlight the need to adapt to changing norms and behaviours. Yet they also represent new opportunities.

It’s a good time for brands to facilitate community building and provide microlearning opportunities to help consumers navigate tough times. Part of this could be developing more strategic and integrated loyalty programs that go beyond products to reward consumers, prioritising customer experience, emphasising shared values, and delivering unique experiences.

Meanwhile, as customers learn to be more discerning, product reviews become much more important – and brands can lean into this by utilising the power of crowdsourced word-of-mouth marketing – and are gaining significance as a trigger to the consumer journey rather than as a validation towards the purchase end of the cycle.

A playful and experimental approach to influencer marketing, aiming to reassure and entertain people under stress, will reflect the shifting concepts of value in content, and help discover new audiences by forging a different kind of partnership with influencers that venture into unexplored spaces.

There are also opportunities to experiment with people’s desire for escapism, and offer something that alleviates the stresses of hardship. This could be achieved through the gamification of marketing assets, immersion in fictional worlds, or invoking the power of nostalgia to lean into the warm glow of halcyon days.

Times might be tough, but by thinking differently, trying new strategies and embracing creativity brands will find ample opportunities – and perhaps even entirely new ways to approach social media altogether.