Customer Now 2021/02

Optimism, pessimism and the zero-tolerance economy

By Jessica DeVlieger

It’s been twelve months of turmoil and people are at the end of their rope. Customers talk of “living in the grey” – a pronounced shift from hope to dread, optimism of “returning to normal” being replaced by the fear of “what’s next?”. Overwhelmingly, they feel pessimistic (* ~70% US consumers).

When you’re feeling down, the last thing you need is for someone to make you feel worse. The same goes for brands. In fact, our benchmark data shows that pessimism has a distorting effect on brand perception – with pessimistic customers much more likely to change their view of a brand (and their buying behavior) if they think it doesn’t “do right”, than optimists. Brands now operate in a zero-tolerance economy.

The Marketoonist, Tom Fishburne, said it best when he said, “no customer is more loyal to a brand than they are to their needs in the moment.” Customers might previously have overlooked shoddy treatment of employees, poor environmental practices, too much focus on the shareholder at the expense of the customer – but right now they’re not in the mood to overlook anything. They need you to be better.

Offer reasons to be hopeful

Customers are putting greater scrutiny on the actions and behaviors of Amazon. We hear: ‘Are they acting in the interests of their employees?’ and ‘Is all this packaging good for the planet?’

When we feel pessimistic we feel hopeless, and what we need are reasons to be hopeful. The world’s biggest brands hold more economic power and ability to influence than most nations, governments, or politicians. They have the power to make real change and make it fast.

But too much of that power is held in reserve, according to customers. Loud and clear our benchmark data shows that brands need to redistribute power to the people that prop up their profits – the community, the customers, the employees.

Customers’ relationship with Amazon is an interesting example to look at here. Amazon revenues have soared in lockdown. Customers need Amazon – the ‘Everything Store’ is an obvious place to turn to get stuff.

But in a pandemic, people are also more conscious of how they get that stuff – when we’re not at work, we’re more acutely aware that the warehouse worker who finds and packs our stuff, or the delivery driver who delivers that stuff – is risking their health to do so.

In this context, customers are putting greater scrutiny on the actions and behaviors of Amazon. We hear: ‘Are they acting in the interests of their employees?’ and ‘Is all this packaging good for the planet?’

The role that Amazon plays in our lives shifts in this context. Customers are using it now because they have to – not because they want to. When the brand doesn’t deliver (against expectations of what is right and what is wrong), the relationship suffers. It becomes emotionally transactional at best and at worst, we hear customers talk about feeling captive.

Does this mean that the Amazon business is failing? Not at all. But perhaps there is a chink in its armor? In the US, eMarketer estimates that Amazon has 38% e-commerce market share. Walmart certainly has the infrastructure and scale to compete – if it’s able to show that it treats employees better, and has greater respect for the environment, it is not inconceivable it could get an edge.

Don’t be reactively supportive, be authentically inclusive

Last year, at C Space, we launched a program called #WeAreHere, to help educate ourselves and guide our clients. This perspective was developed by our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Board in partnership with customers in our online communities. The key finding was clear and simple: ‘Don’t be reactively supportive. Be authentically inclusive.’

Ben & Jerry’s is the best example here. It’s radical take on social justice led an entire industry (in fact, led almost the entire brand category), on its response to the unlawful killing of a black man, and actively challenged its American customers to “dismantle white supremacy” and “grapple with the sins of our past”. The antagonism of its approach left no one in any doubt as to what the organization stands for. That’s the crux of Ben & Jerry’s authenticity – it means what it says.

“The deal about Ben & Jerry’s is that when your company is acting on its values and those values resonate with your consumers’ values, it’s an incredibly deep connection based on justice, fairness, equality — the stuff that we thought the country is supposed to be about when they taught us in elementary school. The other thing is that businesses are the most powerful force in our society, and things have gotten to such a state with Trumpism that businesses — which had always said, ‘We’re not going to take political stands’ — have to make their voice heard because there’s no other powerful actor doing it. Money talks.”

Ben Cohen, Ben & Jerry’s Founder.

Flip the switch. Uncle Ben’s was a decade late to the diversity conversation – the changes the brand was forced to make seemed reactive, rather than proactive, which customers say demonstrates a lack of commitment to positive change.

Loud and clear, customers are telling us one thing: In a world of pessimism, brands needs to be beacons of optimism. Because customers need brands to “be the change they want to see”. To offer hope of a more equitable future. Hope is a scarce commodity right now.

Customer Now 2021

How did 2020 change the rules of engagement between customers and brands? For nearly a decade, we’ve tracked the connection between companies and customers; what we saw in 2020 was a complex and rapidly changing picture – fluid emotional shifts, driven by economic, political, cultural, and environmental uncertainty.

Over the next 12 weeks, we’ll be sharing what we’ve discovered about the state of the customer, now — and the implications for brands — answering three key questions:
— What really changed with customers in 2020?
— Which behaviors are here to stay?
— Which brands are set up to succeed in 2021?


In March of 2020, we launched “Customer, Now” – an online community of 504 people in China, Germany, India, Japan, UK and the US, to build an ongoing relationship over-time and understand more deeply how the events of 2020 were affecting them. We produced weekly “episodes” on from “Customer, Now” through 2020.

Our COVID tracker, fielded weekly from April 10-13 through July 2-6, 2020, with a total of N=68,358 (base for all analyses unless otherwise noted):

  • US n=57,985: sample with respondents from all 50 states.
  • UK n=2,783: sample with respondents from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
  • Global n=7,590: international sample with respondents from 45 other countries, including India, Canada, and Mexico.

Our customer benchmark has surveyed more than 125,000 US customers over 6 years, to benchmark which brands they love and how this picture changes over time. Companies are rated across more than 30 different brand behaviors as well as several outcome measures including NPS, recommendation, discouragement, and intent to purchase. From this, we have identified a core battery and four additional levers that help companies form strong emotional connections with their customers. In 2020, we also included in our benchmark 5 brand behaviors specific to COVID which form their own index alongside several other COVID specific questions. We found these metrics to be especially important in our on-going monthly tracker which we began back in the Spring to track consumer sentiment in relation to COVID.

To hear more about this framework, get in touch.