Everyone is talking about the perfect storm of inflation, soaring bills and stagnant wages, with the cost-of-living crisis now in full swing. However, few are aware of the wider social effects of these tightening conditions. The hidden impact of the cost-of-living crisis will have a huge impact on society’s most vulnerable, making the case for brands to focus their resources on where they can make a real difference.

The cost-of-living crisis refers to the fall in real disposable incomes – that is, inflation-adjusted incomes after taxes and benefits. Rising inflation has been felt already with record energy and fuel prices, caused by depleted gas supplies in Europe, pandemic-induced supply-chain disruptions and the Russo-Ukraine war’s effect on European trade. This has placed current inflation at 9.1%, a 40-year high, and the Bank of England forecast has it peaking at 10.2% in the fourth quarter of 2022. This is all amplified by the fact that wages are growing at a slower rate, with state benefit increases being marginal at best. In a nutshell, we can’t afford as much as we once could.

So why do brands need to change their behaviour? Unsurprisingly, the crisis will affect different societal groups in different ways. It’s time for brands to evaluate whether they can focus more of their attention on where they can really make a difference, by supporting those who need it most. A recent IPA Poll discovered that consumers don’t want brands to provide them with fun, happiness and entertainment during the crisis; rather, they want brands to help them directly where it matters most: their finances. For those at greater risk of financial strain, this becomes even more pertinent.

But this isn’t just a nice to have for brands. If there has ever been an era where brand loyalty might waver, it’s now. By considering tangible, effective ways to alleviate discriminate hardships felt by their audience, brands will go some way to preserving this sacrosanct performance factor.

As we sit amidst the widening spiky jaws of the latest global crisis, many consumers will not only be yearning for value and fairness, but for real help.

Two issues that the crisis will exacerbate in particular are homelessness and domestic abuse. Crisis predicts homelessness will surge by a third by 2022, while higher costs are forecast to be catastrophic for domestic abuse victims; many of whom could feel forced to stay with their abusers as their ability to reach financial autonomy is weakened by the crisis.

One brand taking on these challenges is HSBC UK, whose partnership with the National Centre for Domestic Violence and their new ‘Safe Space’ initiative provide direct support to those in physically or economically abusive relationships. The bank’s ‘No Fixed Address’ service, which has now been running for a number of years, looks to break the vicious cycle of homelessness by offering bank accounts to those without a registered address, a scheme which has already helped over 3000 people escape financial exclusion. Initiatives like these will become ever-more important as these groups begin to feel the financial pressure of the crisis.

It’s not just the UK sliding into social and economic peril: the cost-of-living crisis is a global emergency. Oxfam predicts that a quarter of a billion people face falling into extreme poverty around the world. What’s more, most countries do not have the wealth levels of the UK, so it is important to think beyond our own communities to consider the devastation felt across the globe. In Yemen, for example, basic food prices have increased by 85% since March 2021.

Nestlé’s Income Accelerator Programme is combatting the growing financial hardship in poorer countries by increasing income for cocoa farmers. As production costs rise, many farmers will struggle to earn enough money to educate their children and feed their families. Nestlé’s programme provides farmers with grants, training, education and support. The key learning for brands during this crisis is that they need to evolve in line with the relationships between brand, consumer and supplier. If they can’t show support to their customers, it’s unlikely that their customers will maintain the same level of brand loyalty as they did before. Brands must demonstrate that they not only understand the struggles felt, but are actively seeking to alleviate them.

As we sit amidst the widening spiky jaws of the latest global crisis, many consumers will not only be yearning for value and fairness, but for real help. It’ll become essential for brands to look at their messaging from every angle, thinking about the whole brand, to present a united front as consumers begin to look to the brands they interact with day-to-day for unified principles and values. These consistent messages will be key to retaining loyalty and maintaining growth during times of trouble.

Brands aren’t the whole answer but, as societies become increasingly fractured, they do have a part to play. With institutional trust at an all-time low, there’s an opportunity for brands to position themselves on the side of their most vulnerable consumers in exchange for loyalty that can’t be bought.

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