September 11’s Impact on Life and Your Business

There’s no doubt about it… everyone’s life and business have changed since the events of September 11. Even if you weren’t personally affected by the terrorist attacks, if you’ve been to an airport in the past six weeks, hesitated about opening your mail, or found yourself looking over your shoulder a little bit more than before, you’ve been touched by the events.

But how exactly has society changed? And how will those changes affect business? Beyond the recession that we seem to find ourselves in now, what kind of psychological changes have the attacks wrought that will influence the way that communications professionals connect with our customers?

It’s not a trivial question; consumer attitudes and opinions have always driven the way that we work. The way people live has a profound impact on how we craft our messages, position our products, and market to our audiences, so we have to make sure we know what people are thinking so we can communicate effectively with them.

These questions and others prompted my company to decide to find out how September 11 is changing attitudes and behaviors around the world. Rather than simply rely on quantitative surveys — which there seem to be a plethora of these days — we wanted to find out how people’s lives have changed by observing these changes directly.

To get our data, we assembled teams of cultural anthropologists from all over the world and went into eight U.S. cities (New York; Washington; San Francisco; Seattle; Chicago; Fayetteville, AR; Chapel Hill, NC; and Baltimore) as well as seven locations in six different countries around the world (Northern Pakistan; Jerusalem, Israel; Jakarta, Indonesia; Bogotá, Colombia; Paris, France; Beijing, China; and Nanning, China). We collected over 1,000 pages of stories on consumer behavior and took hundreds of photographs. This raw data helped us come up with four different scenarios of consumer behavior. We then took these scenarios and used them to determine how these changes in behavior will affect business. I’d like to share our findings with you today.

Let me start by mentioning that if you’re interested in obtaining the full report, the PDF version is available here. It details all the findings, methodologies, and larger business implications of the cultural impact of September 11.

For this article, though, I’ll concentrate on some of the main findings and extrapolate how they apply to us in the Web biz:

Scenario 1: People Put Values Into Action

After talking to people all over the world, the following themes kept cropping up:

  • Returning to the family
  • Making work meaningful
  • Enjoying small rituals
  • Aspiring to simplification
  • Moving spirituality forward
  • Recognizing the sanctity of life more than ever

How do these findings impact your business? When you’re managing your employees, keep in mind that people are looking for stability and a sense of purpose at work. A smart employer will provide those things.

But as you look beyond the workplace, note that these findings suggest that people are now thinking “bigger picture.” Consumers aren’t as concerned about trivial matters (reality TV, Rep. Gary Condit, etc.) but are concentrating inwardly on their own comfortable circle. In this environment, permission marketing becomes more difficult and more vital. In an uncertain world where people are circling the wagons, crass external intrusions will be rejected even more strongly than before. Similarly, when dishing up information on your products via the Web, simpler is better — get to the point and concentrate on immediate life benefits.

Finally, customer service becomes even more important than before. People have enough stress in their lives that they’re not going to have too much patience for companies that make things complicated and don’t provide an enhanced comfort level.

Scenario 2: People Are Seeking Personal Control

While the world around us swirls out of control, with geopolitical forces influencing our daily lives in a direct way, people are looking to control what they can. Just as in the first scenario, people are mentally (and, in some cases, physically) circling the wagons, seeking greater influence over what they can control as a way of bolstering themselves psychologically against forces they don’t have power over.

What does this mean for marketers? Company responsiveness to existing customers is vital. People want to feel that they can directly control the impact products and services have on their lives. From a PR standpoint, soften surprises. Early communication about events that will affect the lives of your customers is a must. On the Web, give your customers even more tools and information to help them decide what to buy. Trust is down, and anything that smacks of manipulative crass commercialism will be looked down upon.

Scenario 3: Fatigue Wears Us Down

With the president constantly reminding us that we’re in for a long fight, people are already starting to feel worn down by the constant pressures of fear and anxiety. At some point (and that point is probably starting now), people are going to start looking for ways to relive the pressure. Indulging in escapist entertainment and comfortable “cocooning” — away from the news and business pressure –will be ways consumers may fight back. Unfortunately for those of us selling high-dollar escapes online, that won’t necessarily mean that people will be spending more money. In fact, they’ll probably reduce their spending on big-ticket items, but they may move their spending to smaller indulgences that give them a temporary escape. Music, games, liquor, and even gambling may see a rise in consumption. Marketers who deftly incorporate escape themes in their messages (balanced with the reality that this is just a temporary escape) will resonate with the public.

Scenario 4: “No One Is Going to Stop Me”

The theme of this scenario is defiance. Some people are dealing with world events by gritting their teeth and continuing with life as it was before. This doesn’t mean that they’re ignoring events. No, it means that they see a sense of normalcy as a way of fighting back, and as things get worse they’ll fight harder than ever.

For marketers who want to reach these people, now is a time to emphasize the heritage and longevity of your brands. “New” isn’t necessarily a good thing currently (a theme that’s been bubbling up since the demise of so many dot-coms). Instead, stability and momentum are attractive to consumers bent on keeping life the same. Brands that stay the course and don’t react wildly to changes will attract these consumers.

Ultimately no one knows what’s going to happen. But there’s no doubt that the world has changed. It’s important that all of us who communicate to the public understand the impact these changes are having on our customers.

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