In Rough Economy, Marketers Must Redefine 'Value,' Firm Says

A new study by London-based market research firm Hall and Partners that examines how the economy is affecting consumer trends in the U.S., the U.K. and mainland China finds few surprises -- the UK and U.S. are pessimistic, while Chinese citizens see a bright future once the economy goes through short-term turmoil.

The study, per Duncan Houldsworth, global head of marketing analytics, examines consumer behavior and dynamics of brand choice, and how these have changed in recent months.

The study -- performed in the U.S. in November through January of last year, in the UK and China in December -- is called "My Recession." "We found consistent levels of disappointment about ambitions and dreams, and a desire to escape -- which was reflected in behavior, such as splurging on small indulgences," says Houldsworth. "In the UK, there was a slightly different spin: pessimistic, with people expecting a long, hard period of decline coming and imminent lifestyle changes."

He said Chinese people are "realistic, on balance: negative about the potential for increased prices -- but ultimately, the perspective is optimistic."



On the local level, per the firm, people are spending less money, considering and researching longer for large purchases, putting annual holidays on hold, delaying an upgrade to luxury items or canceling such purchases entirely.

"We see a big decline in frivolous spending with people looking for things that will last, that are not disposable," says Houldsworth. "Consumers have shifted purchase behavior to cheaper and larger. And they are trying new things, but only in sample or smaller sizes."

Also, in both the U.S. and U.K., the firm noted a growing sense that wealth is becoming an embarrassment. "Ostentatious wealth is not welcomed," he says, adding that luxury brands face a dilemma because people purchase such items in part to publicly display their wealth. "Luxury brands face the challenge of recreating their value proposition and making it appropriate."

Still, Houldsworth says, consumers are spending more on less expensive indulgences. "We have seen dramatic increases in indulgence spending: candy, alcohol for the home, take away [meals]," he said. "It's the notion of treating oneself on a smaller scale. People are willing to indulge. Candy manufacturers all presented record results in the last quarter. This is great opportunity, and other brands can exploit this to appeal to peoples' sense of indulgence."

Houldsworth says Hyundai and Subway are examples of brands that have moved the value idea beyond merely discounting. "Hyundai has defined value by their warranty, their willingness to give customers strong product, lots of features, and options, more style. We have seen consumer-consideration increase over time, even this year. The potential is there for companies to brand based on value, community, simplicity, and quality of life." Brands, he says, must incorporate authenticity, simplicity, return to basics -- live up to promises and be consistent. "In advertising, consumers are looking for brands to level with them."

He quotes a respondent in Portland, OR, one of the cities in which the U.S. portion of the study took place: "In the end," she said, "quality of life is what really matters, not what crap you have around when you go. Buying isn't only buying; it's a reflection on what you're buying and why."

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