As various governments around the world gradually remove pandemic-induced restrictions and businesses begin to reopen, there’s a sense that we might be on the verge of returning to the normality we had prior to the pandemic. That is unlikely.

This has important implications for marketers trying to build lasting relationships with customers. Granular monitoring of data and trends in consumer behavior has always been important to planning. Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the profound changes it is causing, marketers will need to think hard—and differently—about what the consumer in the next normal will think, feel, say and do.

All the consumer and market research happening around the globe is pointing towards some common important changes in consumer behavior. Some of them are meaningful accelerations of existing trends, some are only emerging now, as can be seen below:-

  1. Digital Migration: The pandemic seems to have pushed forward some five years in the adoption of digital in just a few months. Significant portions of society have been pushed to trying digital for the first time. This shift is likely to stick, to a large extent simply because e-commerce is often more efficient, less expensive and safer for customers than shopping in physical stores. Moreover, as social distancing and protective measures remain the norm, shopping from our couches will seem even more convenient by comparison. Our ongoing consumer sentiment surveys confirm that customers throughout the world intend to increase their share of online shopping across most categories. Net intent to shop in physical stores once the COVID-19 crisis abates has gone down 7% – 8% across various European countries, whilst on the other hand Amazon reported a 26% boom in sales in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.For marketers, this means rethinking how to connect with consumers. Clearly a stronger emphasis on e-commerce and digital channels is crucial, including consideration of the role of direct-to-consumer (D2C) e-commerce channels. Moreover marketers will need to think through how to manage today’s new wave of data and how to use it to better personalise offers and messages to ever-narrower customer segments. Analytics will need to play a core role not only in tracking consumer preferences and behaviors at increasingly granular levels, but also in enabling rapid response to opportunities or threats. Another, potentially larger, implication for marketers will be the need to redesign shopper journeys for consumers who may be in a different state of mind. At home, shoppers are comfortable—they’re in no rush—they can “add to cart,” then go back for more. They may be shopping at different hours during breaks from their remote-work schedule. They may be shopping for their whole family across multiple product categories.
  2. The rise of the Home: The crisis has made the home a multifunctional hub, a place where people live, work, learn, shop and play. This will be especially true as a growing number of employers, companies and even employees attempt to sustain some of the advantages of working remotely that they have now experienced. People in the next normal are also likely to continue devouring new home-entertainment options. Research is showing that net consumer intent to spend on at-home entertainment has remained resilient in many countries, even when consumers cut back on other expenditures, with a 10% increase in new users of online streaming and 13% in online gaming across Europe. For marketers, whether the at-home activity they cater to is digital or physical (for example, cooking at home has picked up as a family activity), they will need to engage with smart devices and interfaces across the home. How can you seamlessly deliver a message to a customer’s phone, tablet, and TV screens when they are using those devices simultaneously? How can you market on Alexa or Google Home? How can you start two-way discussions (versus one-way marketing) with people in their homes, without coming across as intrusive? In addition, marketers will need to rethink their media mix across a larger set of channels, such as videoconferencing platforms, virtual reality and—for the right segment—video games.
  3. Being Present Closer to Home: The near-total shutdown of travel have made spending your free time and enjoying oneself locally much more important.Businesses seeking to expand their connections with consumers, by localising their marketing and pushing the message of the benefits of “buying local”. Managing this local activity and engagement will require marketers to rewire their operating model to provide a more granular presence. Standing out from other brands while blending in with people’s shifting concerns and behaviors will be a challenge.
  4. Trust: Creating a space for health and affordability: Not surprisingly, various consumer-sentiment research are constantly showing that personal health and economic well-being are top-of-mind concerns for people across many countries. It is obvious that the shared trauma of the pandemic will likely have a lasting impact. Foot traffic in stores—as well as travel and events—will only return significantly when people trust that spaces are safe and virus free. Increased cleaning and disinfecting as well as a mandate that all customers and employees wear masks are the top reasons consumers give for deciding whether or not to go to a store, shop or restaurant. Marketers will therefore need to think through a much broader range of shopping experiences, which will require greater coordination with sales and operations teams across the business. The pandemic has also generated unprecedented challenge to consumers’ brand loyalty. Research is indicating that during the pandemic consumers having shifted back to a particular brand, with almost half of them intending to stick with their new choices. As in other downturns, value is replacing luxury as a desirable attribute. Trust, however, is also a key factor – it is very clear that various consumer research is indicating that a majority of consumers are reporting turning to brands they trust during lockdown.
  5. Purpose: Holding brands to higher standards: Socially conscious values have been in focus in recent years and the current crisis will likely accelerate this trend. The recent surge of activism is likely to give consumers a greater sense of their power in holding larger organisations to account. Market Research across Europe and the US is indicating a majority of consumers that claim that how a brand responded and responds during the crisis will have a large impact on whether they continue buying it when the crisis is over. This means marketers must communicate a strong sense of their brands’ purpose—a cause that the brand stands up fo, or an area where the brand aims to make a real difference. Brands can do this through the projects they choose to be involved in, the partners they choose to work with, the way they treat their employees and the messages they send to customers. Most importantly, brands will need to back up bold statements with real action. Some brands that are perceived as taking advantage of a cause or situation have already suffered a backlash. Brands will need to make clear commitments to causes they believe in or risk newly empowered consumers calling them out.

In conclusion, the extent to which these outlined trends stick will need to be systematically monitored. However, I believe marketers already have sufficient information and impetus to re-imagine, review and modernise their marketing strategies and approaches. New marketing strategies should be driven by answers to the questions that matter most, like for example:-

  • How should the brand’s vision and strategy be adapted to emerging trends and customer demands?
  • How well do you know your customers at a meaningful segment level?
  • What analytics capabilities do you have to not only identify opportunities but to act on them quickly?
  • How can personalisation drive the next order of customer experience in an increasingly borderless environment (home, stores, local)?
  • Which channels and messages are most effective in reaching and influencing consumers across their buying decision journey?
  • How can prices, products and services be customised to changing needs?
  • How will your organisational and operating model need to change to be quick and flexible enough to meet consumers where they are going to be?

While no one knows exactly what the next normal will look like, we do know that things will not go back to the way they were. Marketers will need to systematically monitor trends and indicators, commit to bold changes in marketing strategy and investments and build agility into the organisation to be always prepared for the world that emerges.

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