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Customers in Times of Crisis: Even Less Rational than Usual

We talked to a clinical psychologist about fear, change, the grief model, acceptance, mental capacity, and Freud. Yes, it's about marketing

On Optimove’s daily live stream #MarketingAmidCorona, where we touch everything marketing during this global crisis, we also had a chance to speak to Gilad Adler, a Clinical Psychologist.

We talked to him about how consumer behavior and human behavior, in general, have changed since the outbreak of coronavirus.

I’m sure you’ll find it very insightful.

No Flight, No Fight. Just Sit Tight

AB: What are the various reactions you see since the start of the outbreak when you speak with your patients or generally with people?

GA: As you can imagine, the most common reaction is fear – fear of the unknown, fear of an economic crisis – in general, people are afraid.

Secondly, in times of a crisis such as war, humans usually experience a “fight-or-flight” response. However, right now, we cannot fight, nor can we fly elsewhere, and this makes us feel helpless and scared.

The only thing we can do is be neutral – stay at home, work from home, spend time with our families. And in that sense, this is very different than any other crisis we’ve experienced in the past.

Even Less Rational than Usual

AB: How does coronavirus impact consumption habits?

GA: – We can see in this crisis that people are doing a couple of things differently. First of all, people are buying in local shops, not on Amazon or other retail giants. Secondly, consumers are buying only essential products and not things that are “nice to have.”

However, when people are afraid, they buy things out of anxiety, not from rationality. Take, for example, the toilet paper crisis – consumers are buying so much more of it than what they really need to get through this crisis.

Marketers can take this as a tip for the future, as people will buy more of what they think they need right now. Somewhat thinking more short-term than long-term. Even major organizations are thinking more “right now” than “what’s next.”

Something had Died: The Grief Model

AB: From a psychological aspect, what drives these changes in consumer behavior?

GA: Basically, what’s happening right now can be related to a classic Greek model that I’ve read a lot about, having to do with death. There are different grief stages. During this time, something has died – our ability to go outside, meet people, and go to work. And we will react to it in the different grief stages.

People are thinking about the worst-case scenarios that can happen to them, whether it be unemployment, lowering expenses, and fighting the virus to stay healthy and clean. People are focusing on things that will help them get through the crisis with the essential things that they need.


AB: According to this grief model, what stage are we at right now?

GA: This isn’t like science, data, or math, which can be explained. Since each country is experiencing the virus differently at different times, everyone is reacting differently as well. For instance, in China, they have already had the SARS virus impact the country very strongly in the past.

And since the outbreak began there, they knew how to deal with it quicker.

The stages of grief also affect younger and older people differently, as each age group needs to take different measures. Businesses, however, need to act right now and not wait for it all to pass. They have to understand that this is real and that you’re likely to be affected by it, and you need to accept that it will change your business.

AB: So you mean, we should act from a place of acceptance, such as “Yes, this is happening and will impact everything you know,” and to start dealing with the consequences?

GA: Yes. And, in an article that I recently read, it suggested to add another grief stage – Meaning. This is where you need to ask yourself, “what does this crisis mean to me?” From a philosophical point of view. How you see the world, your life? And from a business point of view as well.

This will give the final acceptance stage, a better meaning of the crisis, and will help you adapt quicker and better.

Change is Inevitable

AB: Many brands are speaking about the Exit Model and how they want to be ready for the “day after.” So, how will consumers look the day after, how will they behave, and how will they change?

GA: What we can assume from previous pandemics is that people and consumers will change very dramatically. Whether it be wearing face masks from now on when outdoors, or what consumers will need in the future. But we will need to adapt to it. We shouldn’t be afraid of this change.

We have to be innovative as we are all experiencing a traumatic time. The world is going to see a big change, and we are not sure what this change will be.

However, in the long run, we won’t understand or remember how life was before coronavirus.

Remember What Freud Said

AB: To wrap things up and leave our readers with a piece of advice, if today, companies want to adjust their messaging, what are people wanting to hear? What is the right message for consumers in this crisis?

GA: Sigmund Freud once said that human beings have a lot of strengths, more than they think they do. But they will find it just in times of crisis. Because most of the time, you believe you are either strong or weak, but you really don’t know. After a crisis, though, you can say to yourself that you’re strong, as you did something right like protect your company and finances.

In the future, our point of view and how we do things will change – because the world will be impacted strongly by this crisis.

But one thing that did not change is our strength, and in the future, we will be better in our capacity to deal with the world.

So, I think that companies should use Freud’s theory to let their consumers know that we’re all in this together. But to also let them know they are strong and that we are strong together. We will deal with this all in the right way, we are not going to break.


Find the full coversation here on April 16th edition of #MarketingAmidCorona:

Stay tuned for more analysis, and in the meantime, check out our vast Marketing Amid Corona coverage:

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