By: Gary Moskoff, co-authored by Leah Friedman
As the last few months have unfolded, in one form or another, I have been asked many iterations of the question everyone wants the answer to: “What’s next?” 

We’ve sheltered in place, we’ve stopped seeing our family and friends, some have stopped working, and others are working overtime. It goes without saying that the answer to this question is hyper-elusive, since information seems to change day-by-day, and at times hour-by-hour. As a marketing veteran of 25 years, I’m asked for my view on this question and have endeavored to research an answer. 

This question (and others) have led to some lively dinner conversations in our home, as we’ve been sheltering in place. My partner (who is the co-author of this article and our resident art psychotherapist & professor) and I are constantly diving into the “why” of all things. What we realized is that underneath the question “What’s next?” is a more urgent call as collectively we face an existential threat to what was previously “normal life.” Deeper still, is the realization that what was considered normal before, is now unsustainable and in many cases impossible to be revisited. The recent series of unprecedented events has called into question our most basic assumptions about community, brands, advertising, how we want to communicate, who we are, and who we want to be. 

These wonderings led us to a series of research inquiries now informing how we are relating to, and thinking about, current events. We became interested in the way people were describing their experience and behavior in reaction to the pandemic, and subsequent global response to the renewed awareness of racial injustice. What became immediately apparent, is that the descriptors we noticed were largely emotional. Marketing people cringe with use of the “f” word… but according to our research, we are hearing a lot about people's feelings concerning all things.

It is becoming evident that this historic period in time is actually being experienced as a trauma. Trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter one’s sense of security, which can leave one struggling with emotions, memories, and anxieties that won’t go away. It can also leave one feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. And although we are all sharing this experience, we are not all experiencing it in the same way. This means that we must be careful not to make assumptions about how someone is experiencing these current events. Past trauma history, individual characteristics, and intersectional identities are all factors. We are talking about trauma on a societal level, that will no doubt impact an entire generation.

In our journey to describe the collective mountain of societal reaction to this pandemic, we’ve been asking people a series of questions, over time. It has been very interesting to see what is changing and moreso, what has stayed the same. 

To showcase the data and highlight how different people are feeling right now, we’ve launched the CEI, the Consumer Emotional Index. We seek to understand what people are doing with their time, and subsequently how those choices are impacting their lives. Identifying the emotional components allows us to gain insight into our reactions to these current events, and how to work successfully within this shared trauma state.  

Trauma, as it’s being experienced in real time, makes it difficult for us to access the full capacity of our brains. In short, we believe that many of us are making decisions with our lizard brains. Our lizard brain, the oldest part of our brain, knows only fight, flight, or freeze. However, for as useful as this response is, this critical survival tool was not meant for long term use. Technically speaking, as the brain detects a threat, the amygdala initiates a quick, automatic defensive response involving the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and glucose to rev up your brain and body. However, as we are many months into this experience, the long term impact of the overuse of this response means decision making is now more complex as fatigue sets in from such a prolonged hypervigilant state. In practice, this means we see people not sleeping, making poor choices, and buying products impulsively to self soothe. 

According to the CEI, 68% of respondents are experiencing one or more symptoms of PTSD based on criteria from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V). There are obvious mental health implications here, but if we consider this data from a marketing perspective, understanding how this shared trauma impacts individuals within a community can inform how a brand effectively communicates with their communities now and moving forward. 

The impact of trauma has been coupled with a mind boggling amount of change, which has happened seemingly overnight. Due to this pacing, we must take a moment to understand how a trauma informed perspective will facilitate new communication strategies that will create deeper relationships with our communities than ever before. 

Brand messaging has simply become more difficult today than it was even a year ago, in 2019.  Anything less than a fully trauma informed approach may be experienced as hollow or simply for marketing success. As awareness of the trauma caused by COVID-19, and the increased surfacing of systemic racism has affected society, it is no longer acceptable for brands to be simply looking to make a sale. The expectation is that awareness translates directly into action. We must engage with our communities in an authentic way that goes beyond optics, to reflect real values and right action within the communities we serve.

In unprecedented times, brands are being asked to act as community leaders by showing the values of their company with service, dedication to their employees, and commitment beyond marketing and social media. Our data shows that 30% of CEI respondents want the brands they engaged with to support their employees offline, and a staggering 53% of respondents want brands to support their community’s values. 

By digging deep into the specific values driving community members, we see that consumers are demanding a more authentic form of engagement. For example, we observed that 69% of CEI respondents want companies to support front line workers, while only 41% of respondents want to receive a discount on a product. This new level of commitment means brands can fully understand and deliver the right message based on a far more emotional metric than ever before.  

Having studied communities since 2003, I am always looking to understand how different individuals want to be communicated with. With the many events that have unfolded, it’s easy to understand why everything has changed overnight. 

As we knew it would, our research ultimately led us right back to our original question, “What’s next?” With our new awareness gleaned from the CEI, we dove right into how a trauma informed perspective could help brands approach their communities with fresh eyes. The basic tenets of a trauma informed lens outline that: one needs to be approached in the right way; and we need to help folks feel safe, trusted, supported, collaborated with, and empowered. When someone is approached with that in mind, they begin to open up, they begin to feel whole, and they’ll remember those who understood them and helped them feel like there will be a future beyond this trauma. 

We are all seeking to align ourselves with communities and companies that reflect our own values, intentions, and perspectives. So when we see companies/communities donating time, talent and treasure, we resonate with them. A brand has to align with someone's lifestyle identities, desires, and behaviors for them to really want to be a part of their community. 

We hope the CEI helps people and brands dive deeper, to communicate with intention with the communities they serve, in a way that feels right, that feels real, from a place of caring, support, and partnership.

By Gary Moskoff has a passion for research, strategy, and digital storytelling. Currently, he leads Sleeping Giant (SG), a research driven creative agency founded in 2003. SG enables their clients to find their truth and empowers them to create, then share their story. Over the years, Gary has built a variety of platforms and online experiences, which has driven upwards of 100 million downloads. SG clients have included Intel, AT&T, AOL, Google, Nite Ize, Cherwell Software, NTT, CROCS, Spyder Active Sports, and WMI.

By Leah Friedman is an educator, facilitator and specialist in art therapy, therapeutic relationships, and group dynamics. Her background blends professional counsel, creative problem solving and education. Trained in art therapy, mindfulness, visual literacy, and psychology, she has cultivated exceptional communication skills supporting the training of new therapists and group.