spring onion tesco supermarket kids child scan as you shop shopper trolley veg GettyImages-1476138915

Source: Getty Images

Every 20 to 30 years there is a seismic shift in the economy, society, science or culture that sends shockwaves through consumer behaviour. In 2008, for example, we had the credit crunch. Suddenly, people didn’t feel the need to be a ‘status shopper’ at Waitrose anymore – and many switched their weekly shop to the discounters.

Today, the pandemic and ensuing cost of living crisis is our equivalent upheaval. It has stimulated consumers to think in ‘occasion mode’. By recognising consumers’ changing need states, brands can create space for themselves, and even carve out completely new categories. But too many are missing a trick.

Fun and functionality

We operate in a market where everyone has access to the same data. The problem is, the granularity and scale of the information that’s available only tells us what the consumer is already doing. It’s not telling us how they react in-store, or what they really want brands to do to solve problems in their day-to-day lives.

It seems to have been forgotten that the original purpose of brands was to simplify tasks for us: feeding and washing ourselves, making our homes look prettier, getting us from A to B, and so on.

Today, categories are too complex. The shopper who’s vexed by a shelf full of soup varieties doesn’t want another one to launch that’s simply 5p cheaper. They’d much prefer something that taps their unmet need, whether that’s one that fills them with vitamins, or one that comes in fully compostable cardboard, using produce from Fairtrade farms.

Product proliferation isn’t the only problem. There’s also a tendency for brands to push the advertising envelope in a bid to seem different.

The point is, not all consumers want outlandish marketing. They want and need the category itself to be a bit more exciting, and more fulfilling. Look at smoothies: a once stultifying category turned upside down by Innocent’s injection of fun and functionality, backed up by marketing. Not just a sideways slide in flavours, nor just more of the same.

The VW Polo effect

Agencies aren’t helping. To many creative teams, category management means a focus on growth drivers and simply trying to outdo the crowd.

But the brief and subsequent idea should always begin with consumer insight, not just category intelligence. That means taking time to understand shoppers’ wide range of need states. As a parent, part of me just wants to buy a cereal that will fill up the kids before they’re packed off to school. But another side of me also wants it to energise them, fuelling them to always do their best.

Understanding these need states can provide the creative spark to help brands view their category differently, make space for themselves, and better support and satisfy the consumer. Volkswagen did this to great effect with Polo: a car that had the feel of a big engine but the adaptable city zip craved by many consumers.

The benefits of thinking differently about category management, learning how consumers use products instead of just how they feel about them, are clear for both brands and shoppers.

Many agencies simply don’t think about category management, or even know what it is. They only think about creating demand for a product or brand, and miss the opportunity to think creatively about reinvention. I’m talking about selling the horses people wanted, rather than offering them cars, or Apple realising they could be in the entertainment business rather than just the computing business.

Brands must avoid the mistake of launching slightly different products that fall foul of the law of diminishing returns. Ultimately, consumers will always choose the brands that understand exactly what they need, and when.