Uncertainty makes people feel out of control and increases their cognitive load but by displaying consistency, transparency and trust, brands can give consumers confidence and reinstate their sense of control, says TRA’s Colleen Ryan. This is part of an ongoing ‘The art of knowing people’ series with TRA that aims to challenge conventional thinking and better understand consumers, markets and cultural trends in Australia and beyond.

Increased uncertainty is a global phenomenon but some countries roll with the problem better than others.

Hofstede’s cultural comparison data shows that Australians are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Australia has a score of 51 which is considered intermediate. Compare that to the UK’s score of 35. The phrase “muddling through” typifies the British approach, whereas Australians are clearly looking for more clarity.

Brands can create clarity by helping people to feel in control. An example where brands are failing in this regard is clarity for online shoppers, where the biggest source of abandoned shopping carts is the “surprise” factor when the shopper is hit with the shipping costs. Another example is making it difficult for people to contact customer service support, which amplifies feelings of uncertainty about the final outcome. 

Uncertainty matters because our brains do not like uncertainty

We operate on tick over when life is predictable but when we encounter uncertainty, our brain puts us on alert. The terms flight, fight or freeze refer to the typical response to uncertainty. Meanwhile, the thinking part of our brain has to consider and modify our response. As a result, our brains experience cognitive overload when we feel uncertain. Abandoned shopping carts are a typical flight response to uncertainty.

Uncertainty makes us feel out of control and exhausted. Brands can do better at giving people a sense of control in buying situations and help themselves by reducing flight, fight and freeze responses.

Independent endorsements help give people certainty

One of the ways brands can help people feel in control is by making decision-making easy (hence reducing cognitive load). The authority bias is one way we reduce cognitive load – we believe signals of independent authority. It reduces uncertainty, resulting in easier decision-making, and thus avoiding a freeze response when deciding what to buy and who to buy from, for example, deciding between a brand that is making unclear sustainability claims versus the buyer’s usual brand.

The environment is one major cause of uncertainty for Australians. People are therefore motivated to do the right thing and brands need to make it easier to distinguish between honest claims and marketing hype, especially when consumers are under financial stress and need to justify expenditure. Using a verifiable authority as a third party endorsement is one solution, which is what happened earlier this year between Coles and Planet Ark. 

Compare this approach to the Health Star rating system (on-pack labelling system comparing the nutrition of similar products), where the onus is on manufacturers to self-classify their products. The symbol is an example of an authoritative endorsement but the rating has received some bad press which has undermined its credibility. Nestle came under fire for using a 4.5-star rating on low-fat Milo, justified because it was prepared with low-fat milk, whereas Milo itself got only 1.5 stars. The 4.5-star rating was later removed from packs of Milo. This is the type of story that adds to consumer uncertainty.

If brands don’t get their house in order, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will wield the heavy hand of legislation. Maybe it is time to shift the onus away from brands and rely instead on the reassurance of the ACCC’s authority. To keep brands honest with their use of language, the ACCC has established guidelines for the type of claims and the language that can be used to talk about sustainability

Technology and data security exacerbate underlying uncertainty

The ACCC isn’t the only body getting involved. The Treasury released its proposed reforms to regulate unfair trading practices in August this year. Many of these are aimed at practices where customers may not be fully informed or could reasonably be expected to be aware of things like concealed data practices, data-driven targeting, and excessive tracking, collection and use of data. 

Survey data tells us that the impact of technology, including data security, on Australians’ lives is a major cause of uncertainty. Therefore, it makes sense for the Treasury to be looking at these issues. However, brands are the public manifestation of bad behaviour as regards technology and data, and it is always the bad news that makes the headlines. The Optus data breach story is still making headlines a year on.

Australia was ranked sixth globally for data breaches in the second quarter of 2023 (VPN services provider Surfshark global study) and some of these breaches have been very public, raising the temperature of consumer uncertainty even further.

This is clearly an area where brands can play a big role in providing people with certainty. Open and honest data policies, for example, or ensuring people are not disadvantaged by lack of accessibility to technology. Reassurance is key but so is delivering on the promise and brands can expect to be called out when they get it wrong as people’s fight response to uncertainty kicks in.

Consistency, transparency and trust

What do brands need to do to give people the sense of control of their lives that uncertainty is robbing them of?

  • With so much change in people’s lives, brands can be a force of consistency. We should not underestimate the comfort that consistency brings. Familiarity makes us feel calm, it is reassuring and demands very little cognitive load. Brand assets, familiar logos and pack designs are familiar signals. And if a brand does need to introduce a significant change, give people a heads up instead of springing it on them. If you must change the website, leave the familiar “buy now” button in the same place.
  • Being transparent reduces cognitive load and makes people feel in control because they are not worrying about real or metaphorical small print. Be transparent when things don’t go to plan. A period of uncertainty has heightened our sense of pragmatism. We are more adult than child in difficult times and a transparent explanation goes a long way.
  • No one is left in any doubt about how important trust is at any time and especially in uncertain times. Pick partners or third-party endorsements that people trust and the halo effect will be significant. 

Uncertainty is still going to be around in 2024. Marketers are probably tired of hearing it but that won’t make it go away. Smart marketers will have empathy with people’s behaviour when it goes astray. They will adapt to a mindset that leads people to want to minimise cognitive load.

The very best marketers will find ways that create customer experiences that address uncertainty through helping people to feel in control.