The power of connection: overcoming the stigma of financial hardship

The timing of this cost of living crisis makes it unique. We have experienced financial crises before, but none that have come off the back of a global pandemic. Through this blog series we’ll explore how this unique combination of circumstances is affecting consumers, what post-pandemic behaviours and trends are surviving the cost of living crisis, and the implications for brands.


Our first blog in the cost of living series talked about the role of uncertainty as a major cognitive and psychological stressor; it puts us into survival mode. During the pandemic we mitigated some of this stress through connection. Community spirit flourished: we came together to clap for carers, community support groups were set up, and we reached out to those who were most vulnerable.

The same cannot be said for this cost of living crisis. Despite the uncertainty we’re all feeling, this time there is little solidarity to mitigate what we’re experiencing. So, what’s changed?


A recent BBC report stated that a quarter of UK adults have less that £100 set aside in savings and yet we’re reluctant to seek help for fear of being judged. There is stigma attached to money. There is something unique about financial hardship that, no matter what the cause, brings a sense of shame.


We see this in our Customer Closeness sessions. Even when we invite customers who agree with statements that they are affected by the rising cost of living, there is a hesitation to be the first to admit that perhaps finances are stretched, cuts are having to be made, and former lifestyles taken for granted are no longer a given.


As an example, we recently met Dave* who had kept his financial struggles to himself. Having lost his business and then split up with his fiancée, he found himself borrowing more and more money to pay off his mortgage. He needed support but he didn’t share his financial situation with anyone because of his sense of shame and feelings of failure. He kept hoping things would sort themselves out.


We also spoke to Sophie* who found her finances squeezed after her boyfriend moved out of their shared studio apartment. Managing all the bills on her own, she’s developed anxiety around money and has been dealing with her situation by, in her own words, ‘burying my head in the sand’. This has led to further feelings of guilt and shame about how she’s managing her money, making her less likely to ask for the help she needs.


Brené Brown (Research Professor studying courage, shame, vulnerability and empathy, and author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers - https://brenebrown.com) defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection”. Shame is a judgement on ourselves, and it makes us feel like a failure. The consequence is that we withdraw, when in fact what we need most during this time is connection.


Brands that really understand the stigma attached to financial hardship and confront it head on provide permission to share and reassure customers that, just like the pandemic, we are all ‘in this together’. Nationwide’s ‘you’re not the only one’ advertising campaign highlights how those previously financially secure might now be struggling, how that can impact on self-identity and crucially how important it is to share the problem with others. It’s down to earth ‘conversation’ style breaks down barriers between ‘the bank’ and its customers that have been in place for decades. It is watchable, relatable and tonally spot on.


Let’s all take some inspiration from Nationwide and do something today that builds connection and helps someone else feel like ‘we’re all in it together’.


*names changed for confidentiality



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