Essentially Hedonist

Between dreamlike simplicity and concrete impulses, the French are drawing a new line in the sand for brands.

The prediction game is tricky. Though it is still too early to make meaningful predictions about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic long term, it remains crucial for companies to observe emerging trends over time. What has struck me these past months as I analyzed social media conversations is the hyper-emotionality within dialogues. This kind of instant, community-based media lends itself to expressing emotions, in general, but in 2020, we reached new heights. Searches for topics such as accomplishment, stress, nostalgia, desire for renewal—these are the emotions that dominated conversations, and consumer behavior.  By analyzing data from Twitter and search queries on Google and YouTube, as well as various surveys, I have identified three major trends that have been accelerated by the crisis and should continue to be observed.  

 1. The search for accomplishment has allowed everyone to redefine "what is essential"

An inverted version of the pyramid of needs, where values of security have taken precedence over fulfillment: this is the thesis that has been developed by many analysts, observers and commentators during the confinement period.

As for myself, I closely explored different “needs” expressed on social networks. 11 million conversations around “essential” notions were discussed between March and December 2020, among which were 885K publications associated with belonging, 683K on achievement, 146K on esteem, 530K on physiological needs and 464K on security.

Not only do this data undermine the thesis of the inverted pyramid—as it is clear that “essential” needs are not found at the top of the conversation—but this also became clear: what is qualified as “essential”. By people on social media, it's not one or the other in regards to the needs indicated on Maslow's pyramid; it's all of those needs, at different times, in different contexts.

"Essential" is not just about having enough food; "essential" is also (and almost equivocally) about enjoying eating.What this data represents to me is the clear indication that Maslow’s pyramid should no longer exist in its traditional pyramid shape, where needs are ranked vertically in terms of importance; what struck me as “essential” for the confined French person is the need to personally redefine their relationship to what they had previously deemed essential, and to reconcile their responsibility with their pleasure, without hierarchy or opposition.

Maslow’s ‘hierarchy’ of needs was destroyed by the pandemic. The different values are still there, surely interconnected, but they are now reconfigured horizontally, focusing on the individual and his accomplishment. This is what I call the "fulfillment ecosystem,” a set of needs that contribute to an individuals’ contentment, without specific needs ever appearing more "essential" than others. The brands that can play within this "ecosystem of fulfillment” while still serving all "essential" needs of consumers, feeding them and inspiring them to dream, indiscriminately, will become irreplaceable.

2. Stress as a generator of comfort and new experiences

The expression of stress has exploded on social networks, with 2.9 million mentions from March to December 2020. This is a 10-fold increase compared to 2019, which corresponds to a marked drop in the morale of the French. There is also an increase in searches for videos on Youtube that educate on relaxation techniques. The re-confinement was particularly difficult to live with psychologically, 28% of French people said they were in a relatively low mood at the beginning of November 2020, versus 16% at the same period in 2019, i.e. an increase of +12 points.

Faced with this increase in stress, two opposing reactions appeared, separating the French population into two groups of equal size:
- Seeking refuge and / or reassurance, which brings consumers back to the brands they know well and trust, or
- Seeking stimulation to try new experiences, which leads consumers to discover products and brands that they did not initially know. 

The search for reassurance:
51% of French people turned to brands in which they had a certain confidence. For the latter, it is an opportunity: to recreate routines, rituals, restore confidence, bring normality back into an abnormal world, and to cultivate control in an uncontrollable situation. This normality, this control, becomes a highly valued “added value proposition” in times of a pandemic.

The "dominant behavior":
546K mentions of "discovery" expressed on social media, between March and December 2020, is huge. 39% of consumers say they have made purchases from initially unknown brands and 73% say they will continue to use them in the future. This is the theory of “the discontinuity of habits,” developed by researchers from the University of Bath (UK) in 2018: it is when we get out of our daily routine that we are most likely to have new experiences. . This is exactly what happened for tens of millions of consumers in 2020. It is in these pivotal moments that the outsider brands have everything to gain.

3. Pre – Post Covid19: the war of the worlds

Many ideas have come to light concerning the "the world after". What I have observed among Internet users is not simply a “new normal”; a utopia where the world could have radically changed for the better, nor a “new strange” (abstract) where total confusion reigns, for the worse, but an “old normal”, where we quickly abandon good resolutions to reconnect with our impulses and the immediate satisfaction of our desires. This is a world which must coexist with uncertainty. It is this same uncertainty that makes drinking even more rewarding and reassuring.

There is also a paradox between limiting their consumption (81% say they want to shop less often) and the desire to have fun (72% want to buy new clothes after confinement). There is certainly an unprecedented upheaval considering the shock of this economic, ecological and social health crisis, which will surely lead to the restoration of humanity and its resilience, but data observed in recent months shows that we will remain ... imperfect. 57% of French people believe that Black Friday is bad for the environment, but paradoxically, the budget for Black Friday has increased by 24% (+ € 47), compared to 2019.

There is one certainty: the changes observed during confinement, such as economic patriotism, won’t all last. Listening to social conversations teaches us that consumers have come back from their big pre-summer decisions: "Everyone wants products made in France, but at the same price as items made in China" to quote one tweet. It's really about moving from intentions to action. And to make trade-offs in a hazy environment, marked by three irreconcilable tensions: the desire to consume in a better fashion, self-fulfillment and the decline in purchasing power. Finally, after having studied users on social networks, it is emotion, the desire for immediate satisfaction, and the response to an impulse - a certain form of hedonism - that marks new consumer behavior.

This radical value reversal constitutes a grand challenge for brands in 2021: how can they embrace these new trends with clarity, consistency and humility, without it appearing to take a brutal and opportunistic turn? As this is not new, however, but has become more essential with the times, it is on the basis of their perceived authenticity that they will be judged, and therefore chosen and consumed.

Seddik Cherif
Research Manager at Twitter France.
Sources : Twitter, Google, Youtube, Radarly, Insee, Elan Edelman, Harris Interactive, Baazarvoice, Yougov.
This is an article I published on LIA London


Data Storyteller passionate about digital marketing and cultural trends