The Paradox of Marketing to Caregivers

From pre-made meals to cribs that automatically rock babies to sleep, products that help caregivers are meant to make it easier for people to help others. But new research has found that the people who would most benefit from these products are often the least open to trying them. This is because many of us have a deeply ingrained assumption that expending effort is how we demonstrate our care for others, and as such we feel guilty about using products that reduce the effort required to fulfill our caregiving duties. In this piece, the authors discuss several studies that illustrated this effect, and then go on to offer a simple intervention that marketers can use to highlight the benefits of their caregiving products without negating customers’ strong desire to demonstrate care through effort.

Caring for others helps us feel connected and brings our lives meaning — but it also takes a lot of hard work, and it can be extremely stressful and overwhelming. Especially during the pandemic, new and unexpected caregiving duties (whether that’s child care, elder care, or caring for a sick relative or friend) have taken a major toll on many people’s wellbeing.

As a result, one might expect that demand for products that support caregivers would have skyrocketed over the last year and a half. And indeed, some of these products and services have been very successful. But in our recent research, we found that in many cases, consumers feel guilty when they use products that make caregiving easier, worrying that using these products makes them less-dedicated caregivers. As a result, many people can actually be very reluctant to take advantage of caregiving products — even though these products could significantly improve both their quality of life and that of the people they care for.

What drives these negative emotional reactions, and what can companies do to overcome consumers’ hesitations and make their products more appealing to caregivers?

People show they care by putting in effort

A prime example of a product designed to support caregivers is the SNOO: a crib that automatically senses when a baby starts crying and rocks them back to sleep. The SNOO has legions of fans among formerly sleep-deprived parents, who hail it as a miracle machine. But it has just as many detractors, critics who readily take to the internet to complain about how it enables lazy and detached parenting (as well as its $1,500 price tag). Representative comments on social media about the crib and its users include, “If you need that device, you shouldn’t have kids,” and “Just lazy and preoccupied.” This is a product designed to give both babies and parents better, longer sleep — seemingly an unquestionably positive outcome — and yet it’s been hugely divisive among consumers.

To explore these conflicting reactions, we conducted a series of studies looking at what makes consumers more or less comfortable using caregiving products, and we found that people were most likely to react negatively to the idea of using a product to help them care for a loved one if they perceived the product as effort-reducing. For example, in one study, we asked participants to make cookies either for themselves or to comfort their significant others. We gave them the option to make the cookies either by hand or with a pre-made dough, and we told them that both options used the same ingredients from the same bakery, ensuring they understood that there would be no difference in quality or tastiness — the only difference between the two options was the amount of effort required. Nevertheless, we found that the participants were much more likely to opt to make the cookies by hand when asked to prepare them for their significant others than when making them for themselves.

Similarly, in another study, we asked participants to send a card to their grandparents. We instructed one group to choose from a set of pre-made cards, while the second group was instructed to design a card themselves. We then asked them to report how they felt about the experience, and we found that participants who sent a pre-made card reported feeling significantly guiltier, and like they were worse caregivers, than those who sent a card they made themselves. We conducted six other experiments that looked at a wide range of caregiving tasks and relationships, and consistently found a similar pattern: People felt bad about using effort-saving products to care for others (especially when caring for someone they were particularly close to), even when taking a shortcut did an equally good job of meeting their loved one’s needs.

Importantly, these findings suggest that it’s not just a matter of judging other people as lazy for using effort-saving products. Most people believe deeply (if subconsciously) that putting in effort when taking care of someone is a vital part of showing you love them. Our research demonstrates that caregivers themselves feel like they are taking the easy way out when they use effort-reducing products to care for their loved ones, and as a result they often hesitate to use products that could make their lives easier.

To reach caregivers, marketers must acknowledge their efforts

So, in a nutshell, this means that the more you care about someone, the less you’ll want to use a product that would make caring for them easier. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that when companies focus their marketing on how their products make caregiving easier, it can seriously backfire, leading the very people who would most benefit from a product to be most resistant to using it.

Luckily, we did find a strategy that can help marketers overcome this paradox: Positioning that emphasizes caregivers’ effort, rather than the product’s ease, can highlight the benefits of the product without negating customers’ desire to demonstrate care. We partnered with Happiest Baby, the manufacturer of the SNOO, to test out how this kind of messaging might resonate with customers. The company ran a two-week-long social media campaign comparing the performance of an ad that focused on parents’ efforts and care (“You give the XOXOs, SNOO gives the ZZZs”) with that of a more traditional ad highlighting how SNOO can make parenting easier (“With SNOO, get ZZZ’s with ease”). The click-through rate was twice as high on the first ad as on the second.

Developing a product that genuinely helps people is important — but it’s also important to market that product in a way that makes caregivers feel good about using it. In the last year and a half, the pandemic has forced many of us to seek help and take what can feel like shortcuts in caring for our loved ones, creating substantial burnout and guilt. But by focusing their messaging on acknowledging caregivers’ efforts, companies can help to alleviate these negative feelings and enable their customers — and those they care for — to get the most out of their products.

Candice Cearley

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