The famous “Got Milk?” campaign started with a deprivation experiment. You can find the history here, but, in essence, participants in a focus group were asked not to consume milk for a week prior to the research. It occurs to me that the Great Lockdown has forced many of us to give up our normal behaviour and brands. The question is: what happens when lockdown ends?
Depriving people of a product is a rarely used but very effective way to uncover its true importance in their lives and, particularly when combined with effective questioning, can help reveal their underlying feelings and beliefs about why that product is, or is not, an integral part of their lives. Essentially, the Great Lockdown has done that for many of us. No trips to the movie theatre, our favourite bar or restaurant, no retail therapy (except online). And the loss of those experiences makes it pretty clear to us what we really want to get back to and what we can do without.
The interesting thing is that the same is true of brands. In 2017, Thinkbox in the UK reported on a fascinating experiment in which people were deprived of their favourite brand, except in reality the product was their preferred one, just without its usual brand identity. The research confirmed that one of the primary benefits of branding is what we call “enhancement,” making people feel more satisfied with their brand choice by creating a halo of positive impressions that surrounds the physical use of a product. The research also speaks to the emotional benefit of branding. People felt reassured, more confident and comforted by the reference point the brand created in their lives.
A few years ago, Gordon Pincott and I leveraged the idea of deprivation research to create a workshop exercise that we used to good effect. We presented workshop participants with a large poster, blank except for a tombstone in the middle inscribed with R.I.P. and the day’s date. We then stated that they had to imagine that their brand had died and asked them to imagine how people would feel. Would people miss it? Who might show up at the wake? What might they say about the brand? And, what might they turn to instead? The results of the exercise were interesting, from the realisation that the brand in question was a commodity, to highlighting specific aspects of the brand experience that could not be replicated and would be sorely missed.
For many of us, lockdown is likely to have offered several opportunities to test the strength of our allegiance to a specific brand. Maybe you realised that there were some brands that were so important a part of your life that you were not willing to risk going without them. Early on in lockdown here in Vermont, I ordered Peet’s Coffee from their website because I was not willing to do without my regular, morning coffee fix. I cannot say that there was another packaged goods brand that I felt so deeply about, but when forced to substitute a new brand for a familiar one, I have to admit to a sense of loss. As suggested in the Thinkbox article, familiar brands form important anchor points in our lives and we miss them when they are not there.
As nations and states begin the slow process of relaxing lockdown restrictions, maybe now is the time for marketers to take advantage of the naturally occurring deprivation study in which we have all been involved. Not everyone will have been deprived of every brand, but they will probably have had to do without at least one, and that experience will have helped identify which brands they really care about. The threat of deprivation will have thrown feelings and beliefs about a brand’s importance into sharp relief and, in which case, now is a good time to dig deep and identify what really drives people to buy your brand. While AI-powered tools like Kantar's STAN allow us to explore people’s thoughts and feelings from naturally occurring information, sometimes digging a little deeper can be even more revealing. Chatbots or good, human-led questioning can help expand on some of the latest trends and help you understand the relevance to your brand.