Many of us are as obsessed with optimizing every part of our lives as we are ready to tap out from burnout—and this obsession is having a big impact on our mental health. By extension, it’s also having an impact on consumer behavior. Not only are there a host of apps to support the optimization revolution, there’s an ever-widening market for them as consumers respond in kind to a nagging question—am I making the best use of my time?
We can catalog, with precision, time spent exercising or how long we mindlessly scroll through our social feeds each day. Our work lives are supported by productivity-oriented tools and dashboards to keep us on task. Even online dating platforms push users to optimize their profiles to increase their chances of finding a perfect match.
At the same time, we’re on tenterhooks, contending with a “rising sense of fear,” according to findings from WGSN, a trend-forecasting and analytics company. The sense of fear is not only increasingly prevalent, it’s a demographic unifier, hitting everyone from Boomers to Gen Z alike, according to the same findings. Though the flavor of anxiety differs from generation to generation, WGSN’s conclusion is that we’re all very macro-anxious about something.
Much has changed since these findings were presented at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in January 2020. But, based on our heightened anxieties amid the Covid-19 crisis, the suggested antidotes for a society already on edge are all the more relevant. As consumer anxiety ratchets higher, so is the opportunity, for retailers, to respond in kind—kind being the operative word.
The one thing we can all agree on? Our rising sense of fear.
WGSN Head of Insights Andrea Bell told a story during her presentation at the 2020 Big Show: she mentioned overhearing a discussion about optimal dog-walking routes, highlighting how the desire for efficiency is touching even the parts of our lives that should require less brain power. It seems laughable, but the insights, from several sources, about what undergirds our behavior aren’t so lighthearted.
In the U.S., 57 percent of teens are worried about the possibility of a shooting happening at their school, according to data from Pew Research Center, cited in the WGSN report, “Future Consumer 2022.” Some 90 percent of global respondents said that the thought of a climate crisis made them feel uneasy about their future, according to WGSN survey data. Bell also spoke of what researchers called “emotional contagion.” The most-emailed New York Times articles in a three-month period were those that evoked “high-arousal” emotions like awe, anger, and fear, according to findings by Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, and what we see shared on screens can be even more impactful to us than person-to-person behavior. The impact of social media fuels digital emotional contagion, which the report described as “fear floods in the most stable of regions.” In other words, our ability to transmit our fears has scaled dramatically as we’ve become enabled digitally. To perhaps no one’s surprise, since 2008, the number of social-media platforms, live-stream services, and connected devices have grown exponentially—Bell, citing Ericsson’s 2019 Internet of Things forecast, estimated that there will be 29 billion connected devices globally by 2022.
The most-emailed New York Times articles in a three-month period were those that evoked "high-arousal" emotions like awe, anger, and fear...
Bell describes another consumer sentiment: desynchronization. She cites Judy Wajcman, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, who explains that people still work as much or more, but the standard five-day work week has lost its dominance. People still read or watch the news, but it's no longer done at a certain time, at the same time, in front of a television. “This desynchronization plays a role in the breakdown of communities due to the lack of consistent human interaction,” the report concluded.
Though innovation offers unprecedented levels of customer convenience, the fact that we don’t always do things—work, exercise, customer service queries—at the same time as others has had a major impact on us as social beings and consumers. Being siloed in this way can only exacerbate matters. Constant social acceleration toward the next thing makes us feel like society is moving faster, and it leaves a lot of people feeling like they’re unable to keep up.
[Related read: 5 trends from retail's 2020 Big Show]
The history underpinning it all
In his book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, author Hartmut Rosa finds that whether people do or don’t feel short on time depends on the relationship between downtime and the time needed to fulfil our “to-do” lists. Rosa writes: "Now the problem of our society is that there is an ever-increasing mismatch between the two. In order to do all the things we must do or want to do properly, we would need 48 hours or so per day. Hence, we are always short on time and we feel that time is running fast."
Rosa’s book was published in 2013, but this has been an issue for generations. In fact, history tells us it has long gone hand in hand with modernity, according to Thomas O’Guinn, professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and expert in consumer behavior. O’Guinn agrees with WGSN’s premise about consumer anxiety and noted that you could talk as long as you wanted to on this topic and have plenty of new and relevant material to cover.
The origins of feeling overwhelmed have always been connected to the nature of modernity and consumption, which was most heavily documented in the 1920s—a time that marked a turning point in the institutionalization of marketing and advertising, says O’Guinn.
“I don’t know if they used the word ‘optimization’ then but they might as well have,” he says, explaining that modernity demanded that we (consumers) make the best use of our time in order to create more time for rest and relaxation. The terrible irony was that over-optimization in response to modernity put consumers on a hamster wheel instead of achieving what O’Guinn calls “the great mythology” of increased leisure time.
We can also look at advertising and marketing, which appealed to customers’ desire to do things a certain way, and differently, depending on if you were a man or woman. The family matriarchs of the 1920s were only a generation removed from women who raised their families on farms, O’Guinn explains, emphasizing that this generation of women were especially subjected to the new concept of running their households like well-oiled machines. While efficiency and optimization clearly took root in the monochromatic, uniform nature of 1950s offices—think early episodes of Mad Men and midcentury housewife tropes—“it has been a constant alongside modernity in American consumer behavior,” O’Guinn says.
There's an expectation that we’re supposed to be able to “do” optimal; that if we can’t achieve happiness, we can at least try to be better at every turn. O’Guinn argues that there’s no evidence that optimizing our lives will make us happier, but there is a lot of evidence that we’re more unhappy and/or anxious.
There's an expectation that we’re supposed to be able to “do” optimal; that if we can’t achieve happiness, we can at least try to be better at every turn.
Marketing and advertising is designed to make a consumer optimally ready to purchase something, says O’Guinn, whose areas of expertise also include advertising and branding. In the Mad Men days, mass advertisements in television and print ads were designed to get customers to that point. Today, we can get much more granular and targeted in terms of our addressable audience. While the objective for companies has always been to identify pain points and position themselves as the logical solution, the sophisticated models teams use today can play on consumer anxieties a little too well.
The solution for retailers: Be an actual solution instead of adding to the noise
Make no mistake, there is big business in optimization. WGSN’s Bell, citing market research, says the self-improvement market was worth $9.9 billion in 2016 and is estimated to grow to $13.2 billion by 2022. The same study found the fastest growing self-improvement business is the life-coach market, which is projected to be a $1.3 billion dollar industry in the U.S. by 2022. Self-help audiobooks are now a $769 million market, growing 5.6 percent or more per year, and traditional self-help books are now an $800 million market that’s growing by 6 percent each year. Self-care apps topped Apple’s 2018 trends list, as consumers spent $32 million on mindfulness apps such as Calm and Headspace. Further, Bell noted that the need for self-optimization is not just being adopted by tech-savvy elites. Based on sales and industry growth, it appears that anyone with a connected device is seeking optimization.
Rather than feeding those anxieties, businesses would do well to respond with what Bell calls “calm commerce,” a trend in branding and marketing that moves away from the competitive, aggressive color palettes and more on relaxation, soft tones, and even softer surfaces. The WGSN research even identified a consumer actively working to counteract these negative effects: The Stabilizers, a cohort that prioritizes stability across their entire lives, specifically as a reaction against the feelings of desynchronisation and feelings of chronic uncertainty. The group, comprising mainly Millennials and Gen Xers, is “starting to opt out of the cult of productivity into a mindset of radical acceptance.”
[Related read: 3 ways retailers can prepare for the road ahead]
The trend toward simplifying makes sense to O’Guinn, who finds that many concepts in his studies of social density apply to branding and brand loyalty. For example, a lack of crowding in the market prompts people to value brands more and pay more for their products and services. And it has everything to do with their lower levels of anxiety.
“When you crowd a bunch of people together looking for a deal, that doesn’t make anyone happy,” he says.
Rather than feeding those anxieties, businesses would do well to respond with what Bell calls “calm commerce,” a trend in branding and marketing that moves away from the competitive, aggressive color palettes and more on relaxation, soft tones, and even softer surfaces.
There’s a noteworthy, continued pivot in this direction as the world contends with the Covid-19 crisis. Companies and creatives understand that people just want to curl up and feel safe, O’Guinn says, pointing to ads for beds and mattresses whose message shifted from “get a good night’s sleep because you need to get up and work in the morning” to a couple snuggling with ice cream and depicting a sense of comfort just because it would be nice.
“It says, ‘There’s therapy in our brand, you can just make the world go away for a little while’” O’Guinn says. “Especially when you get to a point where you run one strategy into the ground and you’re dealing with something as tragic as a pandemic.”
[Related read: How retail is changing, from the women leading the charge]
How optimized and productive do we really need to be?
Giving businesses the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume that the directive to optimize comes with good intentions. The tools to optimize a fitness routine, financial strategy, career path, driving route or dog walk can each help achieve a worthy goal, especially if that’s what consumers are asking for. But businesses play a dangerous game when they push people to the brink. At that point, O’Guinn cautions, people are exhausted, have spent all their psychic resources, and the anxiety appeal just doesn’t work when people are depleted. He again points to the lessons of history, where the response to the “fearful ‘50s”—a decade mired with anxiety about nuclear warfare and geopolitical tension—to the “mystical ‘60s.”
Especially in light of the “new normal” within an unprecedented global pandemic, there is plenty of disagreement about how much we really need to be doing when we’re emotionally unable to process it all. As the Covid-19 crisis and an ongoing, underlying sense of fear tests our mental health, finances, or sense of safety and security—everything that Maslow said we needed before we could achieve self-actualization—doing the best we can trumps doing the very best.
The tools to optimize a fitness routine, financial strategy, career path, driving route or dog walk can each help achieve a worthy goal, especially if that’s what consumers are asking for.
O’Guinn advises us, as consumers, to reframe our phones, for example, from being productivity tools to being pathways to comfort, such as music, television, entertainment, or lifelines to family and friends. He also advises us to learn some lessons from vinyl records: though a technically inferior product on many metrics—sharpness of sound, portability, and durability—many fans of the format would choose its warmth over an MP3 any day. Records don’t need to be optimized for maximum enjoyment, and, ultimately, neither do human beings.
“Maybe we’ll all just take a deep breath and cuddle up with something we like,” O’Guinn says. “Smart marketers understand that if people are satisfied and feel comfortable with something, it doesn’t matter if it’s optimal.”
[Related read: Putting the sensory into the customer experience]
Striking the balance as a business
Businesses, as much as we’d like them to, rarely run solely on good feelings and happy thoughts. Deadlines must be met, KPIs measured, and processes adjusted to account for the bigger picture and to achieve bigger, collective goals. But even for the most old-school leaders, running people into the ground in the name of the bottom line is a questionable business strategy.
I still track my health stats on a fitness tracker. I still monitor my work against the KPIs my team and I are collectively working to achieve. I track household spending, too, because I’m super fun like that. But like all data, its power and impact all depends on what I do with it. Using it to make better decisions is a win in the end, but using it to beat myself up over every missed milestone is a double loss. Businesses are the same way—we can use the granular levels of data we have about customers to play on their anxieties, or we can use what we know about them to be a better partner, helping them achieve their goals.