Navigating the Recession

The global recession is challenging the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people, especially in the developed world, forcing them to focus on basic needs rather than higher-level ambitions. With economies transitioning painfully out of a long boom period-during which people came to take many comforts for granted-consumers will increasingly downsize their expectations, both in terms of material gains and hopes and dreams for the future.

Key Questions

How will the crisis reshape the aspirations that will in turn reshape the world in the coming years? How likely are people to rethink what’s possible and what’s desirable?

Recent aspirations have revolved around fame and fortune; what will be the new smart lifestyle aspirations going forward?

How should marketers and brands respond to this shift in aspirations?

Key Findings

For many decades, growing numbers of people worldwide have been raising their aspirations for more and better on every front. With the global economic crisis, however, people can no longer assume that the next 12 months will be as good as or better than the previous 12. It’s pushing people to review what they have and to revise their expectations.

We’re seeing a shift away from aspirations for fame and fortune -today, people are showing an urge to change direction and lead simpler, leaner and perhaps more meaningful lives. As people evolve ways to live with and through the economic crisis, there will be great interest in finding ways to strip away some of the complexities of modern life. Consumers will embrace downscaled lifestyles, and seek greater control over their lives as trust in the system erodes.

It will be up to leaders at every level -heads of households, businesses, countries and international bodies -to safeguard and steward the bigger, longer-term aspirations.

Aspirations – people’s hopes and ambitions – fuel markets and drive political movements. The craft of marketers, business leaders and politicians lies in great part in tuning into people’s aspirations, understanding what they mean, identifying what’ s missing, imagining what could be and leading people to bridge the gaps.

For a generation, growing numbers of people worldwide have been raising their aspirations for more and better on every front: food, work, education, housing, transportation, leisure, medical care and, of course, consumption. Media and marketing communications have both reflected and fed these aspirations.

Consumers are still seeing many of the same images they saw before the global economic crisis hit, but the context and mood are now very different. For some, the images seem as though they’re from a different  world.

People can no longer assume that the next 12 months will be as good as or better than the previous 12. The sharp downturn in consumer spending shows that the global economic crisis has changed people ’s assumptions about what lies ahead—it’ s challenging the hopes and aspirations of hundreds of millions of people. It’s forcing them to review what they have and to revise their expectations.

How will the crisis reshape the aspirations that will in turn reshape the world in the coming years? How likely are people to hold on to the aspirations they had before? How likely are they to rethink what’s possible and what’s desirable? We examine these questions.

Rethinking Modern Aspirations

Aspiration is about the gap between what is and what could be, with the right effort and the right circumstances. It’s driven by the feelings the aspiration triggers, which may be a greater sense of self-worth, self-esteem or security; it may be excitement, togetherness, self-determination—any number of feelings.

The aspirations that have driven the boom of the last 30 years have been less basic: a bigger home (or a second home), a higher pay grade, a fancier car, a more fun lifestyle, personal fulfillment. As the crisis bites deeper and spreads wider, how many people, communities, businesses and nations will be able to maintain their heightened aspirations?

It seems normal to us now that so many people aspire to change their lives, to have more, to achieve more and to be more. It hasn’t always been so, however, at least not to this degree. Expectations and aspirations have continually risen over the past 60 years.

After World War II, millions of young adults worldwide were just hoping for a more peaceful existence: They aspired to a steady job, regular meals, a home, a family and a community. These aspirations for security and stability laid the foundation for the economic growth that rebuilt the U.S., Europe and Japan.

Rethink: In the 1960s and 1970s, after two decades of stability, young adults were kicking against the steady, cautious conformity of their parents. They aspired to challenge the status quo and to change the world through music and activism, fighting for civil rights, equal rights and peace.


Rethink: Through the ’80s and into the ’90s, aspirations centered around money: making lots of it quickly. The character Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street embodied the hard-edged aspirations of the era. An advertising industry recruiter was likely to find a lukewarm reception at top American colleges, where students aspired to become dot-com millionaires or go into investment banking.

Rethink: As a new century began, fame became as much an aspiration as fortune. Hundreds of millions of people were tuning in to talent shows like Pop Idol and reality TV shows, broadcasting themselves to the world on Web sites such as MySpace, and branding themselves on personal blogs. The aspiration was to be seen, to be known, to be a celebrity.

Rethink: The aspirations of the last three decades—becoming rich and famous-are deeply woven into many plans. But in an environment radically changed by the global economic crisis—with stocks, housing prices and GDP stalled if not plunging—what new aspirations will overlay the existing ones?

A shift in aspirations away from material gain and toward a simpler, more meaningful life was evident even before the brunt of the global financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008. This goes hand in hand with trends such as the increasingly popular Slow Movement and notions such as “me time” and “work- life balance,” which have become increasingly common catchphrases and stalwarts of the growing self-help industry.

Back to Maslow

For understanding what drives people’s aspirations, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs is a widely accepted model. It’s based on the simple principle that some needs take precedence over others. (For instance, a hungry and thirsty person will drink first because thirst is stronger need than hunger.)

Through the boom years, people and businesses have mostly been able to take for granted that their most basic needs are met. Brands and marketing have focused largely on needs higher up the hierarchy:

  • Love and belonging needs (friendship, family, intimacy, a sense of connection) have  been the core territory of social networking brands such as Facebook and of communication technologies such as mobile phones.

  • Above that, self-esteem (confidence, mastery, achievement, respect of others, a sense   of unique individuality, independence, status, dominance, prestige) has been the  heartland of aspirational brands (“Because you’re worth it”) and premium brands.

  • At the top of the hierarchy, self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, experiencing purpose, meaning and inner potential) has been the          preserve of ethical consumption (Fair Trade, organic, local, carbon-neutral, minimal  packaging). Brands and corporations aspiring to be seen as good corporate citizens  have been working hard to gain credentials in this area.

The global economic crisis has overturned the conditions of the boom years. The changing behavior of businesses and consumers showed that everyone was moving back down the hierarchy to attend to the more basic needs: safety and security and even physiological and biological needs.

What it Means

It’s a safe bet that a focus on basic needs will remain the case for a while to come, with consumers and businesses focusing on ensuring their survival through the crisis. This will put a lot of higher-level aspirations on the back burner.

Steady employment and public service: As unemployment spikes, those much-derided, poorly paid, bureaucratic public sector/service jobs with pension benefits suddenly look like employment paradise.

Living leaner: With money tight, consumers will be forced to think and live leaner—to reduce spending on not just food and drink but also on car trips, home energy use, clothing, entertainment, etc. What was once seen as frugality, with negative connotations of poverty and stinginess, may well morph from a distressing necessity to a smart lifestyle aspiration for consumers. Corporations have already embraced the necessity of “lean” as a smarter way of operating.

Regaining some control: The global economic crisis has been a massive experience of powerlessness for hundreds of millions of people, from individual consumers up to big corporations and governments. Everybody feels at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The only people with any sense of control are those fortunate enough to have access to cash.

For the immediate future, consumers and businesses will have little choice but to rely on politicians and governments to get the crisis under control. That may be acceptable for a while, but once people adjust to the new leaner reality, they will look for ways to get more control in their life. That will mean no longer assuming they can rely on “the system” and “experts” to run things on their behalf. It will mean managing money more carefully, saving more (and more smartly), and paying more attention to risk and danger signals.

Living more simply: Modern life has become very complicated. And with the media delivering the complexities of the global economic crisis and other long-term issues like climate change around the clock, it’s become more complicated than ever. How much complexity can people live with?

For a while now, people have been talking about “downscaling,” or living more simply. As the length and strength of the boom showed, this never became a mainstream phenomenon. Living more simply is an appealing idea to many, at least in theory. As people evolve ways to live with and through the economic crisis, there will be

great interest in finding ways to simplify life—not necessarily for philosophical reasons but as a way of reducing stress and anxiety.

Leadership and new narratives to inspire: For a while to come, most consumers and many businesses will be focused on meeting the basic priorities of life—surviving and making it through the crisis without too much damage. Higher aspirations will be out of the frame for many. People and businesses struggling to make it from week to week won’t have much time or energy to think about human rights, poverty in the developing world, the environment or any number of current and potential future issues.

It will be up to leaders at every level—heads of households, businesses, countries and international bodies—to safeguard and steward the bigger, longer-term aspirations. The job of leaders is to prepare for the future and describe the future in ways that inspire people to work toward it. Such leaders will need the strength of aspiration to make the current economic crisis a turning point that leads to a smarter, more secure future.

Welcome to our Leadership Strategic Insights Forum.

Our Vision is to share with you the latest developments in the areas of consumer Insights Digital Marketing Social Media Best Practices. Effectively Managing the new 4D – Consumer – Customer – Shopper – Citizen’s Expectations, by aligning your Brand Promise with Brand Behavior and Brand Experiences. Insights into Industry & Brand Trustworthiness. Leadership strategies for sustainable growth. Insights on the effectiveness of lower pricing vs value for money vs thematic promotional activation as a tool for securing market share growth. The role of Loyalty Programs  to reduce churn and secure sustainable maximization of share of wallet. Finally we will share with you best practices for increasing your R.O.I. of your Brand Equity Investments, through the development 360* brand communication platform and alignment between your brand promise behavior and consumer experiences.

Sincerely yours,

Petros Constantinidis

Insights Forum