138 days after the UK officially announced its first lockdown and 101 days after the continued cry for racial justice was renewed and amplified around the world, I walked off a plane that had departed from Heathrow and landed in my hometown of Chicago, hoping for a brief respite with family and loved ones. But instead, amidst the backdrop of these emotionally-charged world events, I was faced with news that hit me on a much more personal level—my young at heart, highly active and strong, 71-year-old father was in the hospital from a seizure and would later be diagnosed with Glioblastoma, Grade 4 brain cancer. So, as the outside world was crumbling, my own inside world suddenly began to unravel, as well.

Yes, my story is heart-breaking, but I discovered a much harsher truth: I’m far from alone on this rollercoaster of individual fears and societal uncertainties. We are all scared. We are afraid of our loved ones getting sick; we fear for our futures and our children’s education; our safety and well-being is keeping too many of us up at night.

Our new Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brands Amidst Crisis substantiates this unsettling reality. The quantitative and qualitative research explores these fears and realities, but also captures how they translate to a profound shift in our values and buying behaviors.

Fears resulting from the recent tumultuous months have fundamentally shifted how, and why, people buy. As we first uncovered in our June Brand Trust in 2020 report, the new report shows that brands are still expected to solve for both societal (89 percent) and personal problems (83 percent). However, people are feeling more fearful than before, and those fears are compounded by intersecting complexity. Through our qualitative research, we heard from real consumers who told us things like "Five years ago, my fears were limited to hoping all my loved ones would be healthy. Now I fear almost everything." (Maura, 50-64, US) or "Due to Covid-19, my immediate goals have been shifted from long term to short. Instead of saving for 5-10 years goals, I am now more focused on my immediate targets" (Mahesh, 35-49, India).

Where do we go from here?

First, we need to acknowledge these new fears and emerging values. We need to embrace this reset moment at a societal level, a business level and an individual level. Our research found that people’s values have shift to prioritize security (+42 percentage point change), family (+38 percentage point change) and finding joy and happiness (+33 percentage point change) in this challenging world, so this is a reset moment for brands and for marketing, as well.

People don’t need or want the shiny ad-y veneer and the hard-hitting promotional sell. I don’t need to hear that you ‘get’ me or how you help me realize my full potential by simply buying more. It’s time to get real and be accountable. To be more and do more. To ease our fears but to also unite and bring one another joy.

Ultimately, people want to see balance from brands—striking the right tone between showing awareness of crisis and impact (54 percent) and continuing to market in a way their customers are familiar with (46 percent). Consumers and brands share a deep connection and that relationship needs to both reflect and alleviate concerns. As Amy (35–49, India) told us, "I consider a brand to be a part of family where we cannot do without it."

An example of a brand that not only appreciates this new permission but nurtures it, is IKEA. As we heard from our panel discussion that launched this new study, trust plays a critical role in balancing the necessary impact to society and individuals. Olivia Ross-Wilson, Global Communications Director, Ingka Group (IKEA) said it best, "Ultimately trust is personal. It’s about relationships." As a brand that stands for making every-day life easier and better, IKEA is committed to making trust a leadership imperative while translating it into the every-day experiences and meaningful actions that both empathize and connect with individuals.

My dad would always tell me growing up, "Treat people as you would want to be treated." As simple as this is, it has never been truer. For people, for business and for marketing. There is great power in many of the world’s most beloved and trusted brands. Just imagine if cultural intelligence and resonance could be combined and directed in a way that drives good for society and individuals? The new way of brand marketing is simple—treat people in a human way, the way you would want to be treated. Show up with intention and compassion. Not with words alone but with actions—helping, supporting and solving. Now is the time to get personal.

Megan Van Someren is Global Chair of Brand and Food & Beverage.

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