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Will brand purpose take a hit as the cost of living crisis gathers pace?

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As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, will this threaten to undermine the purpose-based foundations brands have built? Using data, Mark Westaby at Metricomm identifies the shift in grocery retailers’ purpose-based positioning from online media coverage.

Those of us who thought the pandemic was driving unprecedented change, the likes of which we were unlikely to see again, were clearly wrong. The world turning upside down as a result of lockdowns has been replaced by a world turning even more upside down as a result of energy prices.

Eye-watering inflation threatens an economic shock even worse than the financial crash, with costs for bailing out consumers facing crippling heating bills likely to be even greater than that of furlough during the pandemic.

Of course, all crises generate major challenges for marketing and advertising. This one, however, promises to be especially difficult given that it threatens to undermine the purpose-based foundation on which so many brands have been building their reputations. Let’s face it, given the stark choice of ‘heating or eating’, how many consumers are going to worry about the carbon footprint of their weekly shop?

Online media coverage and grocery retailers

Market research can provide some answers but given the financial worries facing so many around the cost of food, energy and just about everything else in their lives, it seems highly unlikely that many consumers will put saving the planet above their family’s welfare.

A further complicating factor is when do costs themselves become part of the purpose-based argument? Retailers have vowed to do everything they can to help cash-strapped customers, but at what point do prices on the shelves take precedence over the sustainability of ingredients in the food sitting on them? After all, what could be more purposeful for any parent than feeding their children.

In fact, we already have answers to many of these questions. Or, at any rate, evidence that can be used to address them. Metricomm’s big data analysis enables us to dive deeply into grocery retailers’ purpose-based positioning from the perspective of online media coverage, which we know from our research correlates strongly with consumer consideration and market share.

What we see when we do this is revealing. When we look at media coverage for UK supermarkets since 2015, the emphasis on purpose has been very much around packaging, sustainability and use of plastic, with climate change some way behind. Overall share of audience between each of these topics is 34%, 27%, 35% and 4%, respectively (figure 1). When we look at trends we see that the audience reached for sustainability has grown considerably since 2015, while that for packaging has reduced (figure 2).

What figure 2 also reveals, however, is the recent explosion of coverage for ‘cost of living’ and ‘inflation’, with purpose-based topics seeing dramatic falls.

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Figure 1. Overall share of audience reached by media coverage for purpose-based topics around supermarkets since 2015


The key question is whether this shift in media coverage is reflected in consumer thinking? Market research is of limited value here because consumers will often claim to care about issues such as sustainability while doing little to address them. A far more reliable way of gauging behaviour is to look at Google searches for the topics in question. Doing this we see that searches for sustainability and climate change have fallen by around 50% since May, while for cost-of-living they have increased by around 250%, which largely mirrors what we’re seeing through online media coverage.

We can also use big data analysis to gain further insights around purpose-based positioning for the supermarket brands themselves. The main discounters, Lidl and Aldi, continue to be the fastest growing supermarkets in the UK, with sales increasing by around 18% and 14%, respectively, over the latest 12 week period. These numbers pushed Aldi ahead of Morrisons to become the country’s fourth largest grocery retailer.

Regarding their purpose-based credentials, Lidl ranked equal top in an in-depth study carried out by Which? consumer magazine to determine ‘the greenest supermarket’ earlier this year. However, Aldi was well down the list while the retailer that joined Lidl in first rank was none other than Waitrose. Having been the darling of UK consumers just a few years ago, Waitrose has experienced a dramatic fall in grace just as the purpose-based revolution has grown, to become the second worst-performing supermarket in the country.


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Figure 2. Trend for audience reached by media coverage for purpose-based topics around supermarkets since 2015, compared with inflation and cost-of-living. Note the boosted exposure for cost-of-living and inflation over the last few months


Of course, ranking first in a Which? magazine study does not necessarily reflect a brand’s actual reputation. Our analysis of media coverage reveals that by far the strongest positioning for both Lidl and Aldi is being the cheapest of supermarkets, while Waitrose’s positioning is very much around being expensive.

Taking all of this into account there seems little doubt that price remains the dominant force in consumer purchasing decisions. This is not to say that purpose no longer matters, but as the cost of living crisis continues to bite it seems more likely this will become a ‘hygiene factor’ requiring a tick in the box rather than being a key differentiator in the battle for consumers’ spending.

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