Consumer Psychology During COVID-19

Dr. Yael Zemack-Rugar, Assistant Professor of Marketing at UCF, talks to Bigeye about consumer psychology, COVID-19, and creating long term customer loyalty.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: How COVID-19 is impacting consumer behavior. Dr. Yael Zemack-Rugar, Assistant Professor of Marketing at UCF’s College of Business, talks about generating and testing new theories about consumer psychology. How do subconscious emotions play into our purchase behaviors and decision-making? Dr. Zemack-Rugar explains how helping consumers attain their goals can create a win-win situation, rewarding brands with improved long term customer loyalty and engagement.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency. We’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. During the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve seen some categories of consumer packaged goods flying off the shelves. Today, we’re going to look at some ways in which advertising and marketing tactics influence consumer behavior. Consumer psychology is the study of people’s buying patterns and preferences in relation to products and services, including their reactions to advertising, packaging and marketing. The field evaluates consumer’s decision-making processes as well as determining who buys certain products and how products or services are consumed or experienced. Back in the early 1900s, Walter Dill Scott was Director of the psychological laboratory at Northwestern University. Scott was approached by an advertising executive looking to improve his marketing efforts, inspiring Scott to write a book entitled, “The Psychology of Advertising in Theory and Practice” published in 1903 – and so the new discipline of consumer psychology was born. The field developed throughout the first half of the 20th Century with significant contributions from behavioral sciences, including sociology, anthropology, and clinical psychology. The booming consumer-driven economy of the Fifties resulted in a greater emphasis on analyzing customers and the growth of the market research industry, which we discussed a couple of weeks ago in episode three of this season. Today, consumer research aims to help us understand not just what people buy, but why. Marketers and advertisers are especially interested in understanding what compels people to commit to purchases and why they become loyal to certain brands and not others. One principle that drives people’s actions is their underlying motivation. Motivations may be negative, that is, to avoid pain or unpleasantness, but motivations can also be positive – for example, to achieve some kind of reward such as sensory gratification. To talk about how marketers and advertisers can harness insights from consumer psychology, our guest today is Dr. Yael Zemack-Rugar, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business. She holds a PhD from Duke University, an MBA from the University of Rochester, and a BA from Tel Aviv University. Throughout her career, Yael has applied her passion for psychology and marketing to generating and testing new theories about consumer behavior with a focus on consumers’ goals, motivation, and emotion. Yael’s work has been published in the top journals in both marketing and psychology and has been featured in premier industry publications such as The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Dr. Zemack-Rugar.

Yael Zemack-Rugar: Thank you. So lovely to be here.

Adrian Tennant: What are the main consumer topics that your research focuses on?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: Much of my research looks at the intersection between consumer motivation and consumer emotion. I consider that to be a really, really broad statement because at least from the lens that I apply, almost every behavior that consumers engage in is driven by some kind of motivation. A lot of my work looks at big picture goals, like improving our health, increasing our savings, reducing our debt, increasing prosocial and equitable behavior in society. And I try to understand how consumers’ emotions play into their decisions and into their ability to persist at some of these kinds of bigger motivations and goals.

Adrian Tennant: Yael, what inspired you to pursue psychology in a business context?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: So like everyone else, I’ve had a zig-zag journey – not entirely a straight line – to where I ended up, but I’ve always had kind of a passion and an interest in psychology. And so I was very interested in understanding how humans think and how they behave. I discovered pretty early on that clinical psychology was maybe more than I could personally handle and I encountered cognitive and social psychology on the way. So I decided that maybe understanding the decision making of people who are otherwise generally healthy, as unreasonable as they may seem at times, would be a good path for me.

Adrian Tennant: You’ve published several studies which have been widely cited. Let’s talk about one of these, entitled, “If at First You Do Succeed, Do You Try, Try Again?” What was the research question the study sought to answer?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: It basically looks at these big goals that I was just talking about, such as saving or reducing debt or even succeeding academically or professionally. These are all goals that require what we refer to as sequences of behaviors. So, for example, to lose weight, you can’t just avoid cake one time or go to the gym one time. You have to repeatedly engage in these goal-directed behaviors. And what we know is that if you engage in one goal-directed behavior, that is likely to affect how you behave on the next behavior. So for example, some people when they wake up in the morning and exercise, so they’ve worked towards their weight loss goal, they now license themselves to have some cake in the evening. So they kind of behave inconsistent with their goal because they previously already pursued it and that licensed them to sort of misbehave in a way. But other people kind of are motivated by the fact that they worked out in the morning and they say to themselves, “Alright, I’m already committed to this goal, I can do it.” And it kind of encourages them to persist throughout the day and also eat well throughout the day. So I try to look at how those initial behaviors affect subsequent behaviors because we really need to understand the sequence over time in order to understand outcomes. And if we understand what drives people to persist as opposed to license, then we can create marketing programs and communications, loyalty programs, and things like that that would help consumers do better. And actually when they do better, marketers also do better because they get better loyalty, better engagement, more re-enlisting in membership programs, et cetera. And so we create these win-wins. 

Adrian Tennant: What were some of the main takeaways for marketing and advertising practitioners?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: So there’s a few different things that we can take away from the work. The first is to just understand that consumers don’t respond to success in the same way. So if you have, for example, some customers who are motivated by success, you should communicate their successes with them very frequently. But if you have some customers who are not motivated by success, then you should communicate their successes to the much less frequency. So for example, if you’re a bank and you have customers in a savings program and they’re doing well, you want to let your customers who are motivated by success receive frequent statements about how well they’re doing. But the customers who are de-motivated by success should receive less frequent statements. And one of the things that’s interesting about our research is that it shows that you can identify these people by how they’re performing overall. So for example, those who tend to be demotivated by success tend to perform less well. For example, they have lower GPAs, they have higher debt levels. So banks can easily identify which tend to be its less successful customers and then change its communication pattern with those customers. In addition, of course we offer the scale itself as something that a bank, for example – which has an intimate relationship with a customer – can administer. So it can actually directly collect this information and then use it to segment its customers again, for purposes of communication, the kinds of programs it offers, and also the kinds of rewards. So this is a third thing – is that these kinds of places where we pursue these goals, it’s banks, it’s gyms, it’s universities, it’s credit card companies. They can create reward systems to encourage the kinds of behaviors that we want to see from consumers.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s talk about another of your studies, “Just Do It! Why Committed Consumers React Negatively to Assertive Ads.” Could you talk a little about this one and what the learnings were?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: Yes. This is one I connect to personally because it talks about this phenomenon called reactance. Reactance is the foundational motivation in human behavior. It’s kind of an automatic and almost non-conscious motivation. It’s basically founded on the idea that we want to feel in control, right? Every one of us wants to feel like we are responsible for our own choices. Like we make our own decisions and people can’t tell us what to do. Well, marketers have this interesting inclination to tell consumers what to do all the time, right? We tell them to buy products from us. We tell them to “Like us on Facebook”, you know, “Follow us on Twitter.” These are all imperatives. These are all “Just Do It!” kinds of commands and consumers respond very poorly to that kind of language, generally speaking. So this particular paper tries to look further into when and why those negative reactions to these kinds of imperative commanding language occur.

Adrian Tennant: What are the main takeaways you feel marketing and advertising professionals should put into practice?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: They should stop using imperative language for starters, but this actually has sort of been recommended by a field for a while now. What’s really interesting about this paper is that it found that imperative language was most damaging with your most loyal customers. So it actually turns out that your uncommitted customers don’t care that much because when you tell them what to do, they don’t feel very pressured to do it. Think about an analogy to a human relationship. If you have some acquaintance or some sort of a not close friend who says to you, “Hey, come with me to this party tonight.” Right? You don’t feel super obligated or pressured to go. If you don’t go, you don’t feel very guilty. And so there’s not a lot of pressure on you to comply. But when a really close friend or your mate or your partner asks you to join them and say, “Hey, come with me to this party tonight.” You think, “Oh my God, if I don’t go, I’m going to feel really guilty.” And so this creates pressure for you to comply. Now what’s interesting is in human relationships, that pressure increases the likelihood that you will comply because you’re going to do that to preserve the relationship. But in brand relationships, that backfires because once the brand activates that guilt, consumers say, “Wait a second, you’re trying to manipulate me.” And that kind of activates what we call their persuasion knowledge, their awareness that the brand has an interest different than theirs and then that backfires. So ironically, it’s the most loyal customers that respond the worst to this kind of language. And I think it’s really important for marketers who manage these close, long term relationships with customers to be aware of how detrimental that language is. And in our work, we offer some alternatives and we show some ways to work around that as well.

Adrian Tennant: From your initial idea for research to the submission of a paper for peer review prior to publication, how long does a paper typically take to get published?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: Longer than anyone would ever desire. You know, academe is a labor of love and dedication. There’s a good reason why I study persistence. I would say that for the top tier journal publications that I’ve had, the shortest is maybe five years and this is probably closer to 10 years for those kinds of papers, they’re pretty extensive.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Erik McGrew: I’m Erik McGrew, Designer at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising and design professionals. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. By conducting our own research, we’re able to capture consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused, creative-driven insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re talking to Dr Yael Zemack-Rugar about consumer psychology. Let’s switch gears a little and talk about COVID-19. Recent research from Kantar, conducted in Canada, examined consumers’ reactions to finding many major CPG products being out of stock at the supermarket. In the study, over a third of shoppers reported being forced to try a different brand of toilet paper than usual, and over half said they will consider purchasing the new one even when the pandemic is over. Diapers are often considered to be a fiercely loyal category, but almost four in ten shoppers had to try another brand and over half claimed they’ll consider switching permanently to the new brand. Pasta saw a similar percentage of forced trialists, but three-quarters said they may consider the new brand they bought. So for brand marketers, this situation represents either an opportunity to reinforce positive behaviors or disrupt unfavorable ones. What are some of the psychological principles that we should be considering in the upcoming months?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: This is a really interesting phenomenon in terms of asking ourselves what’s going to stick and what’s not going to stick. So we have to look at the underlying motivation and let’s take a step back. A lot of this switching is happening due to market unavailability. So the first question we want to ask ourself is, “Why is this stuff unavailable?” And it turns out, and I’m sure you’ve read as well, there’s not actually a shortage. There’s enough eggs for everyone. There’s enough meat for everyone. And there’s enough pasta for everyone. But people are hoarding, people are stocking up. And we’ve actually run our own data that we’ve been collecting. We’ve recently applied for an NSF grant as well, where we’re looking at these consumption patterns and how they’re related to control. And what we’re seeing is that people are hoarding as part of the way to exert control. So when you have this uncertain situation, if you feel psychologically uncertain and you don’t feel like the actual health actions are satisfying your needs to feel in control, then you engage in these consumption actions, which further make you feel certainty. Right? So if I have a lot of toilet paper, I feel in some kind of way protected. I feel like I’ve done something. I feel like I’ve taken control of the situation. So it’s control that gets us to this place where we’re all switching brands and buying whatever we can find because there’s these fake shortages because of the hoarding and now it’s control that will determine how we come out of this situation. Because if I switched only because I had to, the first thing I’m going to do is switch back the moment that I can. Because that will be me asserting my freedom of choice. Now if I switched because I had to and I suddenly discover this is much better than what I had before, then there might be some factors that I can compromise on and that will override my need for control. So I will somehow psychologically rationalize that now this is my new choice. But it has to feel like a choice. I mean it has to be a choice for as long as we’re choosing these brands because we have no other options then marketers should be careful before they celebrate their rise in market share.

Adrian Tennant: At the time of this recording, we don’t have a firm timetable for returning to normal, but when we get the all clear and theme parks and hotels can welcome guests back, it seems likely that some social distancing measures will remain, at least for a while. Our guest on last week’s episode thought it likely that restaurant staff will have to take customers’ temperatures at the door, wait on tables in masks and gloves, and use disposable menus. Do you think customers will want to come back under those circumstances?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: So I think this is really interesting. I was reading the other day that JetBlue is the first airline to require passengers to wear masks. And this, after reading some article about a flight to New York where a woman was recounting how 60-70% of the passengers did not wear masks and how she was basically terrified. And I thought to myself, “Some people might think that JetBlue is creating some kind of disadvantage for itself because other airlines don’t require masks and they do require masks and they’re creating some kind of hurdle for consumption.” But I actually think they might be creating a competitive advantage for themselves because if I need to fly somewhere now I’m going to fly JetBlue because I know everyone will be wearing a mask. And so, for certain target segments such as myself, that tends to be more cautious maybe, right? This is a great targeting strategy and it creates a competitive advantage. So we should always remember that there’s different customers, first of all. So some customers may think that wearing a mask in a restaurant is a terrible idea and completely detracts from their enjoyment. But other customers may say, “I’m only going to go to restaurants that require this because this is the only place that I feel safe.” So, first we want to think about segmentation and how people respond to this because different customers will respond differently. And then we want to think about regulation. At the point where market equality is created, for example, there’s an executive order that all restaurant servers must wear masks then now there’s competitive equality. There’s no advantage or disadvantage. This is just the new status quo. Then we’re asking will consumers adjust to the new status quo? Have consumers adjusted to wearing seatbelts? Have they adjusted to using child seats? Have they adjusted to TSA checkpoints when flying? All things that didn’t exist at one point in time that were considered huge inconveniences. But that really didn’t change the industry whatsoever in terms of demand, because what’s easier – to deal with a server with a mask or to never go out to eat again? We have to ask ourselves, “which is more likely?” And it feels like it’s more likely that consumers will just accept this as a new status quo and try to go back to as close as prior consumption as possible. That would be my guess.

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the behavioral ways that you think businesses can help reassure consumers in the inevitable uncertainty of the immediate period post-pandemic?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: So the more businesses can signal that they are truly and sincerely concerned, the more believable any action that you take will be. So being ahead of the curve to take action, for example, will be a sign of sincerely caring. Just like any other marketing communication, authenticity is critical. So if you’re only complying because someone made you, then I don’t believe that you truly care about my wellbeing. But if you’re proactively taking steps to protect my wellbeing and you are showing how those steps are implemented as I interact with your organization, then that’s likely to increase my comfort level.

Adrian Tennant: At least in the short term, we expect businesses to want to focus on activation campaigns rather than brand building. What are some of the potential pitfalls your research suggests marketers need to be cognizant of?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: So activation campaigns tend to focus on calls to action, right? “Click here,” “join now,” you know, “hurry up!” These are all imperatives and we discussed earlier how they are generally a bad way to communicate with consumers because they tell a consumer what to do. It’s unbelievable the myriad of ways we can tell the consumers what to do without noticing that that’s what we’ve just done. So I think that in these activation campaigns, it’s good to think about the way that you communicate. Rather than telling a customer, “click here to join,” maybe “invite” them to join, maybe invite them to “enjoy,” maybe ask them to “come reap” a certain benefit. Right? Highlight the value that they receive rather than the action that they should take to receive it and assume that they can connect the dots if that value is on that action button rather than the command on the action button.

Adrian Tennant: Yael, through all the research studies that you’ve conducted, what are some of the findings that surprised you the most or seemed counterintuitive?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: I think actually that the “Just Do It!” paper is one of the most interesting ones to me because while I had this intuition and the field actually had this intuition that this kind of commanding imperative language is a bad idea, finding that it’s the worst idea with your most loyal customers was kind of a slap in the face. And a big wakeup call, I think. So to me, that was one of the most counterintuitive findings. A lot of my work looks at prosocial behavior and donation behaviors. I think that’s a motivation that’s really important in consumer behavior and I’ve looked at how we can increase prosocial behavior and what are the circumstances in which, for example, corporate social responsibility efforts work for marketers. And there’s some surprising findings there as well. For example, I have a project that looks at how we can effectively combine victim images such as whether they’re happy or sad with the language of the ad. And a lot of people believe that it’s sad victim images that generate the most reaction because they generate a lot of sympathy, right? The ASPCA Sarah McLachlin campaign comes to mind, where you cry every time you watch it and supposedly you donate to help all the poor puppies. But it turns out that actually, a combination of a happy victim with a positive message is the one that increases donations the most. So I thought that was quite surprising when we kept seeing that pattern, I thought it was really interesting that how images combined with language, to increase donations is perhaps less intuitive than expected.

Adrian Tennant: How do you think we can better bridge the gap between academic research into consumer psychology and the practical application of the findings by industry, whether that’s in terms of product and service design, marketing or advertising.

Yael Zemack-Rugar: So I think as academics, we need to communicate more with practitioners. So I’m really glad Adrian, you and I are having this conversation. So I think this is one fantastic way to improve the communication and help industry understand what it is that we do, what it is that we understand. I’ve done this in this context, I’ve done it in popular press, I’ve done it in presentations to the business community and in working with other marketing and research organizations. But I think also as much as academics should be open to those business interactions, businesses also need to be open to interact with academia and understand that, especially in an applied field like business, we are not sitting in some ivory tower. We’re trying to deeply understand problems at a macro level, which then applies to a variety of situations, right? Like I can take my work about psychological control, which has nothing to do with COVID-19 but I came use it to understand how consumers are behaving now. I can use it to understand how we might communicate the restrictions we want to place on the population to protect their health. I can use it to understand how we might communicate to consumers how they should approach consumption in the marketplace, how they should treat new restrictions with their interactions with different marketers. So to understand that I, as an academic, can bring that value to the table. It’s not always entirely clear to the other side either. So I think we just need to improve our communication and talk more. It’s simple.

Adrian Tennant: Yael, thank you very much indeed for joining us on IN CLEAR FOCUS this week. If listeners want to learn more about your research, where can they find resources?

Yael Zemack-Rugar: I have a personal website. It’s just my name. No dots, no hyphens. and it’s all on there. There’s even like a short two minute video if you don’t want to invest too much effort.

Adrian Tennant: Fascinating conversation, Yael, thank you very much for joining us on IN CLEAR FOCUS this week. 

Yael Zemack-Rugar: Thank you. Was awesome. Thanks.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guest this week, Dr. Yael Zemack-Rugar, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business. You can find our show notes with links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked, “Podcast.” Please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, stay safe. Goodbye.

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