Are we stuck in a ‘New Normal’

As we bid goodbye to the first decade of the 21st century, I’m reminded of the often-quoted first line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (for those who forget: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”). In an apt use of double entendre, The New York Times dubbed this a “decade of zeros,” where great advances and early financial returns were wiped away for many in the most recent years.

Even as athlete salaries continue to skyrocket, those of us on the business side of the sports industry have been far from immune to having to get more done with less. Of greater importance, we’ve seen our customers grapple with similar circumstances. As the air has been let out of the luxury market, the incessant aspirational pursuit of “more” has been replaced by a value consciousness that is being articulated in our research, more loudly than in recent memory, if ever. So the question remains, “will this prevail” or will we go back to where we were just a few years ago?

Economists tell us that employment lags other aspects of the economy. In fact, many buffeted their “celebration” of the best GDP movement in two years with a grim prediction that U.S. unemployment will climb north of 11 % by mid-year.

Much of our tracking research on fan and sports participant attitudes suggests that the impact of this most recent recession will be felt long beyond that. Sports and leisure marketers have responded with a number of tactical approaches. My Nov. 10 posting issued a warning for those who have simply chosen to discount their offerings. By doing so, these marketers risk not only de-valuing their brands but fail to understand some of the fundamental perceptual value constructs that are driving consumer behavior in our categories and will continue to shape it in the years ahead.

I’ve long espoused that value is far from analogous to simply offering a lower price. But what has struck me in several recent studies that we have engaged in, is that there seems to be a far more grounded and humbled approach that even the most affluent consumers are applying to their discretionary purchases.

A renewed quest for simplicity, security and the familiar has direct implications on how brands position themselves. This begs for a closer understanding of consumers’ changing priorities, their need states and where our products and services are perceived to fit into their even more exclusive literal and figurative definitions of “community.”

There is no easy answer to the question posed by the headline of this column. Shifts in discretionary spending will become a permanent new normal for some and an aberration for others eager to resume the free-wheeling ways of just a few years ago.

The difficult answers can only be found by tracking and studying these ever-changing attitudes and perceptions, and using those insights to design and position products and services in ways that speak directly to each customer, meeting them on their level, rather than condescending from a perch above.

I believe that this aspect of the “new normal” may signal a boom for more sophisticated direct marketing and attitudinal customer segmentation research to drive those marketing efforts. It also means addressing customer needs and espousing direct product benefits rather than simply tantalizing desires.

It calls for a more pragmatic and dynamic approach, one that begs for consistent attitudinal measurement and renders the simplistic aspiration seeking marketing formula to be so “last decade.”