By Ryan McConnell
Six months prior to the 2016 presidential election, Kantar's U.S. MONITOR Team identified an underlying cultural dynamic that indicated deep discontent with the status quo. J. Walker Smith, chief knowledge officer at Kantar, dubbed the phenomenon "The Fear of No Change."
"Something is in the air," Smith said during a Kantar webinar leading up to the election. "The fear of no change is spurring a call for change. Signs large and small are clear. People are no longer content to endure their declining prospects. They want something to change. And anything that doesn't change is paddling against the current."
Everyone knows what happened next. Despite Hillary Clinton's significant lead throughout most of the race, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, giving victory to the candidate who ran as a Washington D.C. outsider.
Fast forward nearly four tumultuous years and Donald Trump has certainly shaken things up, both politically and culturally. But as the 2020 election approaches amid a global pandemic, economic downturn, and nationwide reckoning with racial injustice, a key question emerges: What underlying dynamics exist in today's marketplace that may provide insights for the way forward for both politicians and consumer brands?
To explore this question, Kantar analyzed the U.S. MONITOR database of attitudes, values, lifestyles, and priorities, focusing on key shifts from 2016 to 2020 (including three COVID-19-specific studies). In the process, Kantar found three critical insights that will most likely play a key role for any entity — politician or brand — eager to align with Americans during a seminal moment.
1. Protection from the Pandemic
During the 1992 U.S. presidential election, Bill Clinton's political strategist, James Carville, famously coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid," to put the spotlight on pocketbook issues. His insight was that U.S. voters reeling from a recession would tune out virtually every other issue if they didn't believe the candidate in question would adequately address economic problems.
Seven presidential elections later, it's the same dynamic, but with the coronavirus pandemic eclipsing the economy as the overriding issue of the campaign. The candidate who convinces more Americans his administration can set the country on a safer course is likely to prevail in November.
Key takeaway: As long as COVID-19 remains an active threat in the U.S., both politicians and brands will look to minimize the impact of the deadly disease. While this is fairly obvious for politicians tasked with keeping the public safe, it's no less pressing for brands and organizations seeking to drive consumer demand amid great uncertainty. As more and more people look to brands to affect positive social change, companies that demonstrate leadership, confidence, responsibility, and, above all, safety, are likely to be rewarded. Indeed, just 40 percent of Americans believe that corporations have done enough to help communities during the coronavirus, according to the U.S. MONITOR.
2. Handle Consumers with Care
Considering the stark differences between 2016 and the current climate, among the most salient is the divergent mood of the nation and what it means for both politicians and brands.
Four years ago, disrupting the status quo was a major goal of both the political right and left. But these days, amid a global pandemic, widespread unemployment, and social unrest, many Americans feel unmoored. Rattled, stressed, and emotionally sapped after a grueling year, Americans are likely to cast their lot with brands they deem to be most able to manage change in a steady, stable, and stress-free way.
Key takeaway: As Americans continue to cope with the effects of COVID-19 on their lifestyles, finances, and relationships, brands should prepare for a more circumspect and risk-averse consumer mentality for the remainder of 2020 and beyond. Brands that focus on ways to build trust — through offers like risk-free trials, guaranteed returns, and third-party seals of approval — are more likely to resonate with consumers in need of reassurance in such a challenging environment. According to the Kantar U.S. MONITOR, when asked for the No. 1 quality when selecting a brand, 84 percent of the respondents said: "The brand assures me that a reliable company stands behind the product or service."
3. Sensing a Cultural Shift
A final theme of the 2016 election was the massive role that economic issues played in the outcome of the presidential race. According to 2016 exit polls, 62 percent of Americans said the economy was either "not good" or "poor," and Trump won this group by a decisive margin.
Given the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, pocketbook issues are likely to loom large in 2020, too. But as cultural movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and rising activism around sustainability have shown these past few years, Americans have become much more attuned to racial inequality and discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. This election cycle has many Americans siding with empathy, solidarity, and humanity, and they are likely to reward the candidates (and brands) who can better embody these qualities in 2020 and beyond.
Key takeaway: Brands that want to succeed with the diverse gen Z and millennial generations, in particular, must heed the call of conscience, or risk the wrath of so-called cancel culture. Based on the cultural shifts since the last election, brands that demonstrate they're a force for positive change and want to make the world a more equitable and humane place are likely to distinguish themselves in the marketplace of ideas. The numbers help tell the story: Empathy/compassion for others increased to 68 percent among respondents in 2019, compared to 50 percent in 2015, according to the Kantar U.S. MONITOR. The most important personal attribute was honesty/being trustworthy, cited by 58 percent of respondents in 2020, compared to 55 percent in 2019. Eighty-one percent of respondents agreed with the sentiment: "I expect businesses to have a positive impact on society/environment."
Playing to the Populace
With the 2020 election near, virtually anything can happen to change the trajectory of the race, such as a major gaffe by one of the presidential candidates or unforeseen events.
However, based on this analysis of the U.S. MONITOR attitudinal database, three issues — competent management of the COVID-19 pandemic, quelling the nerves of a more risk-averse public, and acting on a growing call of conscience — rise to the top of consumer concerns. Those brands that are able to tap into these underlying needs in meaningful ways will be able to separate themselves from the pack.
About Author: Ryan McConnell is the SVP at Kantar, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.