Note: Join the father-son duo on Facebook Live on Saturday July 25, at 7.30 pm IST, as they chat about the inter-generational and inter-cultural differences and similarities they're observing.
Every Thursday night, for the past four years, Amy Jacobs, a mid-level manager with one of the Big Four consulting companies, has been meeting her best friends for dinner. They decide on the restaurant during the week—often a new opening in Manhattan or Brooklyn, but sometimes an old favourite too—and by 9 p.m. they are into their second glass of wine, catching up on the week, swapping stories. For Amy and her friends, this ritual is sacrosanct, and once New York imposed self-isolation practices to curb the spread of Covid-19, like many others, they started meeting online. Since then, every Thursday night, Amy meets her friends on Zoom, sitting in front of her MacBook with her favourite glass of Argentinian merlot and a takeout order from her new favourite restaurant, McDonald’s.
The last time Amy ate a Big Mac was eleven years ago, when she was in college. Since then her tastes have ‘evolved’, becoming more oriented towards organic, farm-to-table, GMO-free food, the contemporary definition of healthy eating. Until, that is, Covid-19 came along and upturned almost every conversation around consumption. Now there’s reassurance in buying from a food factory where standard operating practices have been established over decades, and where every item is identical to every other item, where, in short, there are no surprises. Fast food chains like McDonald’s are reaping huge dividends, as customers like Amy, yearning for security and familiarity, are returning to their comfort blanket of branded, standard food that might once have been labelled unhealthy but now is imbued with the virtue of steadfastness. Having wandered through the world of food, McDonald’s, to her, feels like home, transfats notwithstanding.
Like Amy, I saw my shopping habits change as social-distancing measures went into effect in New York City. Spoilt by round-the-clock access to grocery stores and restaurants, I now had to plan my shopping trips and delivery orders, buying weeks’ worth of food at a time. I found myself opting for familiar brands, the kind with longer shelf lives and larger pack sizes. I’m not alone. Across America, sales are surging for comfort brands—household names that buyers recognise and trust in a time when even the basic elements of their daily lives have been thrown into great uncertainty. Clorox, Colgate, Campbell Soup and Cheetos are all flying off the shelves. Meanwhile, their smaller competitors—small-batch products that in the last few years were rapidly eating up market-share of the aforementioned giants—are struggling. In the pre-Covid world, I would spend inordinate amounts of time poring over online user reviews for products ranging from the essential (LED light bulbs) to the indulgence (imported coffee) and even the mundane (dental floss picks). Now, I don’t think twice before hitting ‘Add to Cart’ on the largest size of Lipton tea and Palmolive dish soap. My search automatically lands on reputed brands, now that I don’t have the time or emotional capacity to parse through reviews. Health and safety top the list of attributes that I want from my brands, and this is where well-known brands win.
What makes a brand a source of comfort to a shopper struggling to adjust to life in lockdown? Firstly, the promise of a repeatable experience is a huge driver of trust. Large brands offer consistency, a promise that their product will never be a source of uncertainty for the buyer. In my own pantry in New York, the small-batch maple syrup from Vermont and organic coffee have been replaced by Aunt Jemima’s and Nescafe. Breakfast is not an adventure when you’re living in lockdown in the global epicentre of a deadly virus! My food purchasing decisions now favour familiar products that promise long shelf lives and consistent taste.
Nostalgia is another strong factor. After waiting three weeks to access a slot on a desi grocery delivery website, I rushed to purchase all my childhood favourites—Britannia’s Little Hearts biscuits, Haldiram’s bhujia, and Thums Up. In food, returning to brands one consumed when growing up can evoke happy memories, which is comforting in a time of heightened stress. Familiar brands of chips, cookies, and chocolate can trigger happy childhood memories, and also serve as stress-relieving snacks. Recently adopted healthy diets are giving way to comfort food harking back to our childhood, the high-in-fat-and-sugar processed foods that throng supermarket shelves, as is evident in Amy’s diet where french fries have made a triumphant return. Interestingly, a return to comfort brands also serves as an appropriate accompaniment to the larger amounts of nostalgia we’re consuming through media. Disney doubled the number of subscribers to its streaming service from February to April 2020 on the back of its large catalogue of old films and cartoons. Back home in India, the state-run Doordarshan channel is airing highly popular reruns of old programmes to entertain households during a strict lockdown. Amul, a familiar brand for multiple generations of Indians, has tapped into this wave of nostalgia by accompanying the Doordarshan programmes with old TV ads from the original air date of the shows. Both the show and the sponsoring brand have become a popular source of nostalgic comfort.
Childhood habits are hard to break, while newly acquired lifestyles are more tenuous. For this reason alone, the shift to big brands might become a long-term phenomenon. The pandemic has triggered a desire for security, consistency and familiarity, both in our lives and the brands we consume. Legacy brands are enjoying a revival. Clever marketing managers will certainly recalibrate their strategy to retain existing customers and convert new ones like Amy for a period longer than just the current crisis. As I write this, I’m happily sipping a cup of Nescafe and popping a few Little Hearts!
Damodar Mall adds a seasoned perspective from India
While you can see the same behaviour here in India, “it’s not as straightforward,” Damodar says. “There’s many a slip between mindshare and market share.”
Listen to his three-and-a-half minute audiogram:
- Listen to Damodar on how his team responded to consumers’ evolving needs during the three months of the lockdown—and what it indicates about the ways in which retail is getting reset.
- Watch the first show in the series Talkin' 'Bout My Generation, based on this column, livestreamed on Facebook Live on July 18, 2020.
- Read the second column on Gen-Z and the post-Covid workplace. (Bookmark the Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation series.)
- Watch out for Episode 2 on Facebook Live on Saturday July 25, 7.30 pm IST. If you haven’t registered to watch the show already, register here: https://bit.ly/FFTAMG