One of the most significant effects of the recession (which may be over according to economists but many households are not convinced) has been consumers’ propensity to trade down to lower priced brands. In good economic times, many marketers strived to deliver value through enhanced product features or symbolic benefits of their brands. The strategy was to deliver value that customers would be willing to pay price premiums to attain. When the economy worsened, consumers tended to become more conservative in their buying behavior, cutting back where they could and buying lower priced alternatives to meet their needs.
The behaviors described above are more than gut feelings about what consumers have been doing. A recent study by comScore found that consumers indeed traded down to lower priced brands during the recession. The study tracked consumer behavior in terms of buying the brand they wanted most for a variety of consumer packaged goods categories and housewares. All categories saw a decline in the percentage of consumers who had bought the brands they wanted most. For lower priced products that may have few perceived differences between brands, the effects of the recession on trading down were not as great. For example, 36% of consumers reported they bought the brand of paper towels they wanted most in 2010, only 1 point lower than 2008. But, for other products that have greater perceived differences between alternatives, more consumers decided to forgo the brand they wanted most for lower priced brands. For toothpaste, purchase of preferred brand dropped 10 points from 2008-2010 (67% to 57%), shampoo dropped 13 points (65% to 52%), and jeans dropped 15 points (54% to 39%). More information on the comScore study can be obtained by clicking here.
A great deal of uncertainty exists about whether the shift in consumer behavior during the recession is temporary or reflects a permanent shift toward value being defined more by low price than product benefits. Many experts believe the trading down behavior may be a realignment of consumers’ priorities. If that is the case, marketers must redefine their unique selling proposition. Is price the only point of difference that will matter to consumers? Probably not, but what brand traits will attract customers and more importantly, drive brand loyalty?
A return to branding basics seems to be in order. Trust is the foundation of relationships between buyers and sellers; it is no different than a personal relationship. Conducting business in a way that shows concern for customers, care for the community, and commitment to the well being of stakeholder groups are ways to develop and solidify trust. For example, social responsibility appears to be more than a fad; it is a shift in mindset among many people that businesses should be good stewards of the resources it uses and encourage consumers to do the same. Going forward, brand loyalty is more likely to be secured by demonstrating genuine concern for customers than dazzling them with product features or an aspirational image.