Personal interests and the greater good

Man walking across a city street wearing a mask


People are now torn on another front. Looking out for number one versus supporting the greater good or Me Versus We. As both the pandemic and pandemic fatigue set in, how can marketers and brands stay connected with consumers as they gyrate – sometimes wildly – between following societal guidance versus exercising freewill?

While the coronavirus affects people differently from individual to individual, the pandemic itself, and its far-reaching ripple effects, is impacting everyone across the board. Without a collective, worldwide effort aimed at mitigating the spread of disease, experts fear dramatically worsened outcomes will unfold, creating untold tensions and discord.
A majority of people believe following the guidance and directives put in place by governing bodies and public health organizations is important to limit the virus’ spread. And yet, tellingly, there are still many who resist these directives, claiming their individual liberties are being jeopardized. Without deep psycho-social analysis in the why, it’s important we at least recognize the me versus we chasm, and learn how to navigate the differences.

woman on public transportation with a mobile phone wearing a mask

With “we’re all in this together” continuing as the common social and marketing refrain, the public health crisis demands a collective spirit and action; likewise, it also simultaneously provokes personal-health decisions and continual re-evaluation of one’s priorities.

Sign that reads "we're all in this together!"

The scales of balance between the me and the we have see-sawed vigorously on many fronts, and when viewed alongside the very real pandemic fatigue, we can begin to see what these challenging times actually means on a practical, day-to-day basis.

These challenging times is more than a mere platitude, it is fast becoming code for not always knowing what to do, what to believe, or how to feel. Upbeat today? Maybe downtrodden tomorrow? We are all caught in this maelstrom, created outside of anyone’s control.

Perhaps due to our minds’ pre-programmed fight or flight instinct, people are being pushed and pulled in multiple directions continuously, sometimes unconsciously. Let’s look at some of these pandemic-imposed tensions:

  • The need to adhere to safety and prevention protocols versus the desire to be autonomous and live one’s life freely.
  • The discord between believing in civic obedience while craving civil protest.
  • The shock of juggling personal, work and familial (education, daycare) demands.
  • The generalized and specific emotional ups and the fearful downs, pandemic related or otherwise.
  • Determining those with whom one feels comfortable, safe, or with whom one remains distanced from, in every possible respect.
  • The protracted timing of the pandemic, cycling through waves of intensity and causing wide-swings of government responses and public reactions to those responses.
  • Finding a new sense of community among co-workers while working remotely or working under newly heighten restrictions.

Through all of it, one thing holds true. There has been no shortage of forks-in-the-road to assess and navigate, consciously and subconsciously. The adage of change being the only constant is being proven out on a daily basis.

Where this comes home to roost for marketers is in the resultant impact on people’s preferences and loyalties. With normal life being unrecognizable to most of us, consumer behaviour and choice is going through its own version of churn, with ever-evolving criteria. Going beyond basic product features and benefits, people are now re-evaluating who they do business with and why. Brands and marketing practices need to keep pace or be left behind as yesterday’s “old normal.”


The pandemic is prompting people to more actively rethink their place in the world around them, creating seismic attitudinal shifts and new dilemmas for marketers across every sector.

How can we still connect with consumers as they are revisiting and questioning their own priorities, personal allegiances and preferences?

Following are a few strategies we suggest, along with winning brand examples chosen from the international marketplace:

Participate in the “we” and deliver to the “me”

As financially-concerned consumers scale back on spending, marketers should maintain emphasis on the essentials that are still drawing discretionary spending such as homelife and health.

SheaMoisture, for example, launched their “It Comes Naturally” campaign in an effort to create “a forward-looking celebration of Black identity.” “SheaMoisture was founded as a response to needs in our community, not only for premium products celebrating our natural hair, but also institutional and cultural needs,” SheaMoisture CEO Cara Sabin said about the campaign in a release.

Launching across broadcast, digital, and social channels, SheaMoisture pledges its support for Black entrepreneurs by announcing that the proceeds from all products sold will be used to invest in small businesses for an indefinite amount of time.

Shea Moisture: "It Comes Naturally" campaign

Help customers navigate the trade-offs and emotional swings by removing complexity and minimizing sources of stress, thereby making life a little easier for those in need

As people navigate the swings between wants and needs, brands can help narrow the divide and make choosing easier through product portfolio simplification, value-based pricing, and promoting practical product benefits that bring real value versus superficial hype.

With online shopping on the rise, Sainsbury’s, the British grocery retailer, invested in upgrading its mobile app and e-commerce experience, significantly increasing its online capacity across its brands. According to outgoing Chief Executive Officer Mike Coupe, they started out with three specific objectives. “First of all, to feed the nation; secondly, to make sure that we kept our colleagues and customers safe; and thirdly, that we set out to support the communities that we serve.”

Sainsbury’s, the British grocery retailer

Lock down your MVP customers

With brand loyalty being put to the test and more consumers “playing the field,” marketers can pay extra-close attention to their most valuable customers by carefully curating ongoing communications, offering unique loyalty rewards, leveraging CRM modelling, and making the organization or brand as open, understanding, and accessible as possible.

One of the largest and most trusted U.S. pharmacies, Walgreens, adapted their “Ask a Pharmacist” series into short, informative videos that answer common questions related to COVID-19. The brand also created a video ad to explain how people can safely take advantage of online care services and free prescription delivery.

In addition, to help address the challenge that many communities face with limited access to COVID-19 tests, Walgreens instituted drive-thru testing for first responders. All these efforts worked seamlessly together to not just say, but show, they care for their customers.

a Pharmacist

Start internally to deliver externally

Don’t say one thing externally and do something different internally. Be accountable to staff through making a genuine commitment to a healthy workplace, creating a supportive culture, and ensuring a more flexible approach that can accommodate individuals’ needs, just as a customer would expect.

An example of a company responding with humanity is Target. As an essential business, Target kept employee safety top of mind during the pandemic. It extended sick leave for all employees and offered high-risk employees 30 days of paid leave if they felt uncomfortable coming into work. Target also offered financial assistance to employees, giving every employee working in stores a $2/hour pay increase from March through May 2, and created a matching program for employees who wished to contribute.

a Target store

To address consumers’ heightened concerns around protecting their health, McDonald’s Philippines created a campaign to communicate its commitment to protecting both its employees and diners. The campaign incorporates what the brand calls health managers. These designated employees are always on the lookout to ensure that health and sanitation rules are followed both by the staff and the customers while inside the restaurant. By video, president and CEO Kenneth Yang assured customers, “We will not hesitate to cancel any customer activity or even temporarily shut down any of our restaurants.”


Historically, times of change represent both an opportunity and a threat to marketers. Evidence is showing that the shockwave of change arising from the pandemic is leading to serious changes in consumer behaviour. Not simply the obvious, like watching Netflix or Hulu, in lieu of a trip to the movies, or dining in with take-out, because restaurant dining rooms are still closed.

A recent McKinsey Consulting study suggested that 36% of American consumers have switched brands during the pandemic period. To be sure, some of that brand-switching was due to limited production availability during early stages. But other causes are still being studied.

McKinsey Consulting
To help inform how marketers can evolve brand values and marketing strategy, a review of historical precedence, trending social media engagement, and public opinion survey data sheds light on some of the emerging changes in priorities and predict future consumer values and preferences.


Crisis can bring people together but also drive them apart

References from history and anthropological studies serve as evidence of how people can splinter and regroup along new lines during periods of strife and tension.

Decisions in favor or supporting the greater good often come with a trade-off or sacrifice which in turn might conflict with more personal needs of self-preservation and a sense of control over one’s own destiny. Like a form of invisible tug-of-war, people experience two different things going on at the same time:

On one side, when going through periods of change, people step back and exercise their own individuality to ensure they don’t lose sight of themselves and can maintain a feeling of control over what is occurring in their lives.

Increased individualism and personal me-centric values
  • World values research identifies increased preference for personal expression and values across countries and cultures
  • Technology facilitating the number of outlets for personal expression from selfies, to social media and blurring of staged vs reality audience events

And on the other side, change can serve as a catalyst for new forms of unity and alliance to form as people step into new forms of social solidarity. Spotting new like-minded allies brings individuals together again along new lines as sub-communities and interest groups are formed.

Realignment away from known institutions and towards new interest groups
  • War, social welfare and status, racial prejudice and abuse have proven to be catalysts of change and powerful levers at uniting individuals along new lines:
  • Examples include the Occupy movement, #metoo, BLM, world war and political unrest

The above trend seems very consistent with the polarization happening on Facebook and other social media this year, where entirely new affinity groups are forming communities of like-minded individuals who are creating strong bonds and narratives. Some of these groups are giving voice to previously disenfranchised, and others patently bad, like the Q-Anon phenomenon in the U.S., a cult-like movement that has grown unbridled out of this perfect storm of circumstances.

Through this perspective, we see the pandemic generating both effects, with many being willing to follow public health directives, as well as others becoming united over their shared disinterest in doing so such as those protesting public mask wearing, decisions taken by government, and deployment of testing & tracing efforts.

It is worth noting that the direction in which the me versus we balance tips can vary by country and their geopolitical situations. For example, in a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 65% of Canadians feel Canada is now more united as a result of the pandemic whereas the same study identified that 77% of Americans feel America is now more divided.

This shift in social alignment, and its resultant emotional swing effect on peoples’ outlooks, takes shape in how they express themselves online, in conversation with others through social media outlets.


Balancing between the “we” and the “me”

The nature of online social conversation is evolving as people are now months into living with the coronavirus. While the pandemic triggered a near-immediate sense of shared interest and unity, people are also recognizing the need to also invest time and energy in oneself at the same time.

A phone with several thought bubbles expressing feelings of concern
Protecting and investing in “me” is trending upward
  • Along with increased “in this together” sentiment generated by the pandemic, there is also increased social conversation and engagement around matters of self-care and mindfulness.
  • As new priorities are being identified, spending more time taking care of oneself physically, mentally and spiritually is coming to the foreground for many.

Because of the unpredictability of infection risk, people are continuously feeling a tension between what they want to do versus truly need to do. Priorities that wouldn’t have warranted a second-thought are now weighed against other important considerations and concerns.

Priorities are now continuously balanced between what people need to do versus want to do
  • The pandemic is being used as a moment to reflect and reset aspects of life with new priorities and refreshed purpose.
  • As examples, the pent-up demand for social connections and in-school education is now suddenly tensioned by continued need for safety and the protection of health.

The sense of collective spirit brought on by the pandemic has now carried into parallel social media conversation about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to end racial injustice and police brutality.

Uniting around social issues
  • Demands for greater racial equality and an end to racialized police brutality have merged with COVID-19 social media conversations.
  • Politics are driving the highest volumes of conversation – the pandemic generated a heightened sense of shared community which has now become further amplified by BLM protests.

True to historical precedence, social media engagement is reflecting a shift towards greater collective spirit and unity, and is also now providing new evidence of the need to maintain a sense of self at the same time.

While broader, shared issues are universally engaging people of diverse backgrounds and different profiles in social media, there are also notable differences in concerns and priorities between generations captured by survey data worthy of further examination.


Burning the emotional candle at both ends

In our previous insight exploration, we clearly identified the ongoing back-and-forth shifting of me versus we priorities, and this tension is well evidenced in what is driving online engagement.

Beyond the online content that is consumed and shared, the human emotions that are shared further illuminates just how polarized peoples’ pandemic experiences are. If pictures can tell a story, the emoticons used by people over the last few months vividly suggest a roller-coaster ride of emotions has taken hold.

Every positive emoticon is met with its alter-ego, to much the same weight in presence and impression. The wide spectrum of feelings and sentiments expressed through emoticon imagery, notably with bewilderment sitting in the middle, demonstrates the extensive emotional swings people are experiencing.

Joy and laughter balanced by sadness and loss. Fear and anger balanced by love and optimism.

As people continue to benefit from the positive feelings of community and unity in facing the pandemic, they are also now coming together again to fight a new fight for inequality and justice, asking not just governments but also societies to play their part, while trying to maintain a livelihood and standard of living for themselves at the same time. With all of these events stacking on top of each other, society’s emotions are pushed to extremes simultaneously.

Additional evidence of people’s polarized extremes can be found in quantitative survey data, helping gauge the ways in which the me versus we balance is tipping.


Overall, the balance still favours the we.

In analysing the monitor’s quantitative data for signs of me versus we and to help inform to what degree people are acting in self-interest or collective interest, data related to (i) mask-wearing, (ii) minimizing social activity, and (iii) financial outlook, suggests that overall the balance still favours the greater good, however individualistic priorities are trending upwards as pandemic fatigue starts to affect a greater portion of the public.

Two people on the street wearing masks


Masks, and the personal and political connotations they can have, serve as a totem of individual will versus institutional guidance, alignment and obedience. Based on the trended data in the monitor, the vast majority of people are presently in favour of masks being worn. Potentially this stems from masks generally being a no-trade-off proposition in that they both contribute to broader public health goals of mitigating the virus’ spread, as well as protecting the wearer to some degree.

While some may protest, the majority are in favour:







In a recent Canadian-market survey, Leger Research identified that 87% of Canadians felt wearing a mask was a civic duty because it protects others while 21% felt it was an infringement on personal freedoms which represented a six percent decline from July.

Physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings

Out of two encouraged behaviours, the practicing of physical distancing is generally much more accepted and followed versus the avoidance of social gatherings. A lower inclination to avoid or limit social gatherings appears favour a higher share a me priority almost as if physical distancing is relatively easy to do for the greater good, but a personal desire to remain connected socially exerts a greater (and growing) tug on many people.

Willingness to practice physical distancing:







Willingness to avoid gatherings:







Financial outlook

The degree to which someone is concerned about their own job security, as compared to the national economy, is another valid marker for the me versus we balance. Overall it can be seen that national economic prospects represent the greater concern for people, but it must also be noted that between a third and up to a half of people are also personally concerned about their own job security. This finding represents a clear recognition of the delicate balance between what affects the country can ultimately affect the individual.

Concern about the national economy:







Concern about personal job security:








How embracing the greater good can positively impact a marketing approach

If the pandemic has cast a spotlight on how people want to look out for themselves but also act towards a greater good, marketers have identified two ways in which they can extend their brands onto the social commitment stage.

Be a local business

If the pandemic has cast a spotlight on how people want to look out for themselves but also act towards a greater good, marketers have identified two ways in which they can extend their brands onto the social commitment stage.

Local small businesses are threatened, and consumers will want to know that their shopping behaviours won’t further compound that situation.

How to be more local
  • Local product development
  • Local supply chain and sourcing
  • Localized pricing — competitively positioned; fair value
  • Local communications activity to activate and support the strategy

Canadian-market example:

“As a proudly Canadian company, this would serve us well. We will not, however, overtly flag-wave to take advantage of this.”

Global brands can still be local:

“How we ensure we are just as safe and reliable as local products”

Act with social purpose

CMOs felt that a return to family-focused values as well as the sustainability movement, both present before the pandemic, will be further amplified. To adjust to these new values, the CMOs suggest:

Provide genuine value based on a simpler, time-spent-at-home experience

“People are seeking enjoyment out of the simpler things, and ‘finer necessities’ seem to be taking the place of frivolous wants. We need to keep in line with these experiential nuances and place our brands in proper context.”

Articulate your business raison d’être in a way that rings true for the business and resonates with consumers

“Purpose-driven brands that truly have the customer’s back at this time will have an advantage.”

“We think it will matter enormously as social responsibility for corporations will be a focus of customers and public in the future. Actions will be linked to climate and social responsibility.”

COVID-19 is changing consumers. Are you changing with them?

To explore and apply further insights about post-Pandemic consumers for your sector, business, or brand, please contact:

Suresh Raj

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  • Historical cues and other thoughts from renowned cultural anthropologist.
  • Changing trends and themes from social-channel listening around the globe.

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