Inflation, Trauma, and the Importance of Asking the Right Questions

“Trauma” can easily be used to describe nearly every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the tragic loss of life and lingering health issues to significant shifts in social discourse, political systems, and the global economy, the world is traumatized. And today, as both people and businesses navigated the ebb and flow of changing mandates and regulations, we’re all watching as inflation — a key aftereffect of trauma — grows.

This steady increase is concerning but is nothing new. The United States saw inflation in the late 1940s as the country transitioned out of wartime production from World War II. We felt it again in the 1970s (oil shocks) and more recently around 2008 (rising gas prices). Inflation is the economic result of national traumas, such as war, depressions, oil embargoes, and, as we’re all learning, pandemics. You could argue the current inflation is different. It’s global, its trigger is a microscopic threat, and there’s a significant lack of unity regarding how to navigate the turmoil. You could also argue that it’s not nearly as bad as those prior examples. However, these arguments are nothing more than speculation.

That’s not what you need. It’s not what customers want. And waiting for answers isn’t going to help. So, rather than playing a guessing game, it’s time to accept what we don’t know and start asking the questions that matter (hint: this involves turning to your customers).

Today’s Inflation is an Educated Guessing Game

Predictions from leading economists point to both continued inflation and dropping rates, with compelling arguments on both sides.

Inflation will last a while because…

  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is slow and cannot mitigate inflationary forces.
  • Emotions are low. The “Misery Index” — currently at 10.8% — spiked for the first time since the oil embargo.
  • Housing prices are rising for renters and owners.

Or inflation may be transitory because…

  • The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is calculated in arrears, uses outdated measurement methods, and undercounts online expenditure.
  • The underlying reason for inflation — too much money chasing too few goods — will shrink as the global supply chain heals.
  • Technological advances are a deflationary force, and innovation in the tech sector has not slowed.

But here’s the thing: Every historical episode is nuanced. We don’t have a 1:1 comparison. Yes, it’s important to predict and plan, but knowing what your customers need and want from you now is more important.

Stop Waiting for Answers, Start Asking the Right Questions

Definitive answers are unlikely, if not impossible, so start focusing on definitive action. Start identifying what you need to understand about your customers and your place in their world. For this to be effective, you must think big and small and look beyond the numbers. Consumer (B2B and B2C) behaviors are a direct result of how we feel, and the messages and information we received affect those feelings. First, start by understanding your customers’ overall next steps and behaviors:

  • In a post-COVID environment, what consumer behaviors are going to be influenced by inflation?
  • How does that differ from pre-COVID inflationary consumer behavior?
  • What commonalities exist between post-COVID and pre-COVID inflationary consumer behavior?

Then focus on what you can do to help regardless of which inflation prediction comes true:

  • What messages reassure skittish consumers to keep them supporting your business?
  • In the face of uncertainty, what does your business offer that can help?
  • What more do they need from you given the changing landscape?

We think of this as the transition from “what if…” to “so what?”. In other words, it’s important to imagine and plan for both inflation scenarios, but then you need to stop asking “what if…” and start asking “so what are we going to do now?” The only way to answer that question is to listen to your customers.

Sure, some of the answers may change in a year or six months or even less. But predictions on the economy will change, too, and there’s not much you can do about that other than watch, wait, speculate, and worry. We prefer action, especially when all you have to do is ask.

Patient Psychology


Bonnie’s extensive clinical background helps her engage with healthcare professionals as an equal and patients as an understanding peer. Learn more about Bonnie’s commitment to qualitative research.



A global pharmaceutical company launched a novel product to manage a chronic pain condition, but prescription rates were lower than projected. The client had several hypotheses regarding prescription, with two leading theories emerging:

Medication cost was prohibitive/insurance coverage was problematic
Physicians awareness was low and/or they were not mentioning it to eligible patients
However, research into the discrepancy between projection and initial uptake hadn’t been conducted. The client didn’t want to move forward with marketing or outreach initiatives without understanding the underlying issues.



We needed understand the psychological state of the patient before assessing factors which may or may not compel them to consider the medication. With this emotional foundation, we could move on to explore the affects of potential tactical barriers such as cost.

To accomplish this, a robust qualitative study was needed. A nationwide sample of patients was recruited, all of whom had awareness of the medication, but most of whom chose to reject taking it.

To offer the client usable insights, we knew we’d also need to understand the prevalence of the barriers—emotional and tactical—identified in the qualitative study. To accomplish this, a quantitative study was designed for use after the qualitative research was complete.



Through conversations with patients, we identified complicated and deeply rooted psychological reasons for rejecting the medication. Very few patients hesitate because of any practical reasons such as cost. Rather, patients wait until they reach their own personal “breaking point” with their pain before accepting the need for the medication. The condition and treatment affect intimate aspects of a patient’s life, including libido and reproduction, so many choose to “suffer” with the pain. Similarly, many belive the potential for side effects are not worth the risk.

Physicians consistently offer the medication, but very few advocate for it or provide adequate guidance. They leave the decision entirely up to the patient, causing them to feel overwhelmed and frozen not only by the disease, but also how to move forward with it.


Analyze & Advise.

Increasing prescription rates is about more than overcoming tactical barriers. Rationally, patients understand the risks and rewards of medication but are not compelled to pursue treatment due to the personal nature of the disease and the emotion behind treatment decisions. Though every patient experience is unique, the qualitative research revealed common threads while the the quantitative portion of the study allowed us to better prioritize action by highlighting the prevelance of these experiences.

To increase patient uptake of the medication, several key recommendations were made to the client:

Revamp advertising to convey the patient’s worthiness of having pain relief – that they do not have to live with pain any longer. Bring their breaking point to them.
Reassure patients about side effects. Pain relief and improved quality of life are worth the risk of usually minor side effects. Make the risk/benefit case clear and easy to understand.
Develop a campaign to turn prescribing physicians into advocates. Help them see how the medication will improve patients’ lives.

Cloud Choices



John’s 20 years of experience as a software engineer allows him to understand a project’s technical depth while building peer relationships with every client and respondent. Learn more about John’s commitment to qualitative research.



A leading technology company wanted to understand the decision-making process for enterprise organizations evaluating cloud providers for their critical infrastructure. More specifically, they wanted to understand who makes recommendations and decisions surrounding the move.

The client had theories about this process and needed these theories confirmed or corrected. The long-term goal was for them to better understand who they needed to target when marketing their services and solutions and what may be needed or evaluated in the process.



Rather than setting out to only assess our client’s existing theories, we sought to conduct a landscape study to better understand the perspective of those working within enterprise organizations. The research was designed to allow respondents to organically build a map of the process that would, as a result, confirm or refute the existing theories.

This approach would help generate a natural view of the process without potentially altering responses.



Letting respondents lead us through the decision-making processing encouraged more natural conversations and, as expected, shed light on who specifically recommends and/or evaluates potential cloud providers. Using our knowledge of both the technology itself and business operations, we followed respondents through recent projects, from genesis to production, while listening for significant decision makers and moments of change.

This process gradually helped the client understand the accuracy of their theories but also allowed the respondents to paint a picture without pre-established borders.


Analyze & Advise.

The research allowed us to build an influencer model with profiles of the various roles participating in and/or running the process of migrating to the cloud. We were able to identify the evolution of the cloud deployment process and show why many enterprises deliberately deploy to one cloud provider initially but later redeploy to another. However, the non-restrictive nature of our research enabled us to take this understanding one step further by building models that corresponded to unique organizational structures and purchasing / technology decisions that extended beyond cloud migration.

From more traditional, top-down organizations to grassroots companies with a less linear process, our models provided clarity, so our clients could go to market with greater confidence. This model is still applied today when making major strategic and tactical marketing decisions and has been proven accurate in many subsequent research studies with this client.

Branding Over Bragging Rights: Toyota’s Rise to Number 1

Old News: Toyota, thanks to a stockpile of semiconductor chips, was able to stave off production delays better than other auto manufacturers. As chips became an increasingly hot commodity, most global automakers — including American dominant, General Motors (GM) — were forced to reduce production targets, but Toyota held on a bit longer. As result, they became the top-selling automaker in the United States, dethroning GM and becoming the first foreign manufacturer to ever claim the top spot.

New Story: Semiconductor chips are only part of the reason behind Toyota’s success. In fact, we’d argue that the chips may have a lot to do with how Toyota surged ahead, but not the why. The reason for their success has less to do with what they had in stock, how many vehicles they produced, or how their 2021 sales compared to 2020 and a lot more to do with the brand’s steadfast focus on and commitment to their customers.

The Flexible Philosophy That Led to Toyota’s Chip Stockpile

Toyota is famous for its Just-In-Time (JIT) approach to manufacturing. Yet, despite their tendency to run lean on inventory, bringing in only what they need for production rather than warehousing components, the company also believes in flexibility and change.

As Toyota notes, TPS [Toyota Production System] has evolved through many years of trial and error to improve efficiency based on the Just-in-Time concept developed by Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder (and second president) of Toyota Motor Corporation. In other words, they didn’t implement JIT and assume everything was fine. Toyota continued to watch the market, monitored supply chains, and make changes — as they do today — that made sense given not only their needs, but also the state of the industry. So, when they became aware of a potential supply risk following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the company decided a stockpile of chips would provide security even if it wasn’t strictly JIT.

These chips were necessary for production and were a critical part of Toyota’s mission to continue delivering safe, reliable cars to their customers. And, though Toyota clearly knows the value of evolving their own strategies, this customer focus is one part of the organization that remains unchanged.

Committed to the Brand, Not the Bragging Rights

Analysts may disagree on exactly what led to Toyota’s success beyond the chips themselves, but we see one clear answer. A softer answer that has little to do with numbers, but everything to do with what ultimately matters most: customers.

In response to their new top sales position, Toyota said, “Being number one is never a focus or priority. The company’s focus has always been—and will continue to be—on being the best brand in terms of safety and quality in customers’ minds.” Jack Hollis, senior vice president, Automotive Operations Group, Toyota Motors North America, made a similar statement after the company announced 2021 year-end results: “Despite a second consecutive year of challenges, TMNA focused on delivering an exceptional customer experience.” In contrast, GM noted that they focused on profitability in 2021 and told Toyota, in a roundabout way, to not get too comfortable in the top spot.

Toyota’s statements have nothing to do with sales numbers or production targets. There’s no mention of computer chips or beating out the competition. Instead, Toyota clearly focuses on staying true to their brand by continuing to produce quality vehicles. After all, this focus is what helped Toyota stake a claim in the American auto market when they first began selling in the US in the late 1950s. America’s Big Three — Ford, GM, and Chrysler — were struggling, and the new Japanese brand delivered quality. Even then, the company was clear about their “customer first” approach.

In a way, this feels a bit like Avis’s “We try harder.” campaign. Rather than clambering for market share or pushing for the top spot, Avis knew what they did best — focus on customers and the customer experience — and stayed the course. They leaned into it. Toyota has never positioned itself as the underdog, but they’ve stayed true to their brand. They focused on quality rather than profits. After decades of growth, strategic moves to support manufacturing, and gratitude to their customers, Toyota has accomplished something impressive: They became number one without even considering their rank.

To go from clicks to customers, move your focus from products to people

Clicks don’t mean someone has connected with your product or brand. All they mean is that you’ve managed to grab someone’s attention — with humor, intrigue, wow factor, etc. — to make them act. This, in itself, is a feat.

Grabbing attention has always been central to the marketing and advertising mission. If you can grab the customer’s attention, you can tell them more about what you have to offer and, ideally, generate a sale. Today, however, there’s more vying for our attention than ever before and this becomes truer by the day, meaning brands face an increasingly steep uphill battle. This also means grabbing attention isn’t enough.

But it never was.

Brands with the strongest loyalty understand that the most powerful advertising stems from establishing an emotional connection with consumers. Not simply appealing to an emotion with something like humor, but actually understanding the consumer and the values that get them out of bed in the morning. When advertisers and brands make this shift, moving away from products and toward people, clicks becomes customers and, better yet, these customers become loyal advocates of the brand. Successful brands like Peloton are already doing this, and you can take the same approach.

Peloton’s continued human focus

When Peloton, who sells both products and services in the way of exercise equipment (beginning with a stationary bike) and classes that can be taken at home, first launched, the brand focused heavily on their products to establish brand recognition and carve a space in the industry. However, more recently they’ve transitioned to a more human centric approach. Rather than focusing on functionality, Peloton’s turning their attention to those who will be putting their products and services to use. Or, more specifically, how this use interacts with their life.

The “Better Is In Us” campaign is one of their earlier examples, focusing on the various challenges we overcome in pursuit of something better in ourselves, but Peloton continues evolving this message. The 2020 “Meet Our Members” campaign focused on real Peloton customers and how Peloton products — and ultimately a commitment to exercising with the brand — fit in their daily life. This year’s “It’s You. That Makes us” expands the message by focusing on the community and connection between customers made possible by a shared interest: exercise with Peloton.

If making this transition sounds like a big ask, that’s because it is, but the payoff is even bigger. Understanding the values that resonate loudest with your customers helps you connect more deeply and is possible if you move beyond features and benefits to understand how your brand essence intersects with the personal values you’re trying to reach.

Connecting Benefits to Personal Values

From features, you find benefits. From these benefits, you find values. When you work to understand the root of those values, you can understand the central emotional connection a consumer has with a product.

Unlike a cost benefit value analysis, this connection has nothing to do with actual monetary value. Rather, it’s an emotional-benefit value understanding.  It’s what connects the product’s features and benefits to the consumer’s values and beliefs. Let’s take a general look at how this could play out with a soda product.

Flavor is the unique feature and the refreshment/quenched thirst that comes with drinking it is the benefit. When refreshed, consumers can go about their day and be more productive. This, in turn, lets them live life to the fullest, however that looks to them. That very last stage is where consumers connect. It’s what drives them, often subconsciously or unintentionally, to make a buying decision.

Values-Based Message Development

When an advertiser understands the values and beliefs that create this connection, they can move the consumer from simply understanding the product’s features and benefits to connecting these benefits with their own values and beliefs. Suddenly, consumers imagine how the product affects what they value. This applies to any consumer-facing industry. A particular value may manifest differently from person to person but speaking to that value itself allows every individual to connect in their own way.

When you identify these values, these intrinsic needs, you can speak about your product by focusing on how that product addresses those values. As a result, you help consumers connect and build stronger relationships with your customers.

It’s important to note that this isn’t about how you can attach your brand to potential customers. It’s the opposite. You must understand what your customers value, so they can understand the benefit of attaching themselves to your brand. That’s a nuanced difference, but it’s crucial. When you reach consumers in this way, you generate real interest, new sales, and customers who become proud ambassadors for your brand because your products or services connect with their values.