How the current crisis is transforming consumer behaviour

Falling purchasing power has far-reaching consequences for Belgian consumers. How should brands respond? 

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More than half of the Belgians are buying private labels more often than they used to and half plan to celebrate Christmas more soberly this year. Those are findings of a recent survey commissioned by BBDO Belgium. As many as six in ten Belgians surveyed feel “extremely” affected by price hikes in recent months. Meaning brands are bound to be affected too. So it’s worth having a look at the way consumers are handling the crisis today, what habits they are changing in the short and the long run.

Private brands gain ground

The economic crisis, and in particular the big price increases, are having a major impact on Belgians' behaviour. And that doesn’t only mean they turn down the heating – which they do en masse. They are also changing their behaviour in the supermarket. More than six in ten Belgians have started buying private label products in the supermarket more often today than they used to.

Shoppers who switch to private labels do so mainly for milk and yoghurt, pasta, water, biscuits and cheese. For laundry products, soft drinks and chocolate, less than a third make the switch to private labels. Beer drinkers are the most loyal A-brand customers: only 7 per cent have swapped their trusted beer brand(s) for an alternative private label.


Changes are here to stay

Belgians are not just changing their behaviour temporarily. They very worried about the future too, and bracing for a long crisis. One in two today assumes a crisis that will last until at least after the winter of 2024, or may never be over. Just 13% of those surveyed are optimistic and expect the crisis to be over by next summer.

And even if crises come and go, it seems some of the changed shopping habits are here to stay. A striking number of Belgians say they will continue to buy private brands even after the crisis. 90 percent say they will never go back to brands for at least one product category. Most popular again are crisps, milk and yoghurt, biscuits, pasta and water. Even the holidays are no reason for exceptions this year. One in two Belgians say they will celebrate coming Christmas more soberly.

"This crisis affects almost the entire population and the impact will be felt for a long time to come. This applies in particular to our energy consumption, but also to household products in shops. However, we do expect important spending and spending on leisure and relaxation, which are also under pressure now, to peak again soon," says Fons Van Dyck, brand strategist and head of Think BBDO.


Sustainability remains important

However, Belgians' frugality does not mean that they no longer attach importance to sustainability. Two thirds of Belgians surveyed expect action to be taken today to combat global warming, without delay. They expect the European Union (20%), international companies (18%), and the Belgian government (17%) to take the lead.

First and foremost, Belgians expect the price of sustainable products to go down. Two in three Belgians agree with that statement. Half of all Belgians also want to be obliged to make sustainable choices, for example by banning plastic packaging.

"Classic brands are under pressure from the crisis and will have to prove their relevance more than ever. What is especially hopeful is that a majority of consumers are looking to brands to tackle global warming with sustainable products at affordable prices," concludes Barbara Vangheluwe, CEO of BBDO Belgium.


How should brands respond?

According to Melanie Norris (Managing Director BBDO Worldwide) we are living in a permacrisis, meaning the impact of the crisis we are experiencing is unprecedented and long-lasting. And as is the case with any crisis, it is also a chance to show leadership and make a difference. “It’s not about encouraging spend, it’s about identifying non-negotiable sources of spend and your place within it. You must create meaningful value for customers. Don't be irresponsible, be meaningful.”

The challenge for any brand will be to simultaneously adapt to the changed consumer priorities, while maintaining long-term brand consistency. Or put simply: it is time to ask yourself how your brand will stand out when everyone is shouting “Low prices, high quality!”.

Need some help with that? Let's keep in touch


Barbara Vangheluwe, CEO

Pascal Kemajou, CCO

Eva De Gendt, CCO


About the survey: survey conducted by market research firm BUFFL on behalf of communications agency BBDO Belgium. Digital survey of a representative sample of one thousand Belgians, from 14 to 24 November 2022. Equal distribution of respondents between men and women, and among age groups. Margin of error: 3%.

Written by Think BBDO,