By Doug Church
The COVID-19 outbreak has had a significant, short-term impact on consumer behaviour, largely driven by social distancing, health protection and concerns about supply of essential products. People are buying more online in general, and purchasing more survival items (e.g. food basics) and sanity products (e.g. entertainment). While much of this is driven by the current predicament, what remains to be seen are the longer-term shifts in attitudes and behaviour that will have a lasting impact on how companies relate to their customers.
In light of the global pandemic, there are several core developments that give rise to questions around enduring behavioural change, including:
In the investment world, there is now much speculation around which industries could benefit and which could suffer longer term in light of the pandemic. While the main motivation is to determine where to invest for the long-term, the underpinning of speculation is potential change in consumer sentiment and behaviour. Some of the speculation centers on industries that were very quickly and overtly impacted by the pandemic. For example, the travel industry had been hugely impacted short-term, and the impact could carry through to longer-term reluctance to travel or to choose vacation options that involve congregating in larger groups (e.g. cruises, all-inclusive resorts). Less obvious are the potential impacts on brands where attitudinal and behavioral change could have a more subtle impact. For example, luxury brands typically involve a more high-touch sales process; will current events lead to a change in this process or, alternatively, increased aversion to luxury brands altogether? Similarly, will increased online shopping activity during self-isolation have a more lasting impact on overall shopping behaviour? Also, will online access to services beyond tangible products or simple transactions lead to expansion of what people are willing to do online (e.g. more complex service interactions)?
The prospect of permanent shifts dictates the need for companies to keep pace with where their customers are going, and how their needs are evolving. A recent article by McKinsey & Company outlined the imperative for companies to think across five horizons for a return to normal, including a “reimagination” stage to determine the impacts and implications of any discontinuous shifts. Already, we are seeing examples of businesses adapting to the current situation by reimagining what and how they offer products and services. Food services businesses are delivering food kits to satisfy functional and emotional needs of isolated consumers; clothing stores are offering online shopping parties; fitness clubs are offering online classes; benefit providers are offering virtual consultations with health care professionals, and so on. While these attempts to adapt to a new reality are admirable, it remains to be seen what changes will endure and what this means for going forward value propositions.
More than ever, customer insights will be needed to determine what the new normal is with respect to expectations, needs, behaviours, and the shape of future products and services. Research can be used to start understanding and gauging potential changes to layer onto initiatives and regular processes that were in place prior to COVID-19. Through qualitative approaches, observation and analytics, companies can start to take stock of how things might have changed. Armed with these observations, new filters can be applied to assess planned initiatives. Eventually, insights can be used to look for and guide the development of new opportunities that emerge.
Throughout history, black swan events like financial crises and pandemics have tended to have disruptive impacts on society and business. While companies have to walk a careful balance between staying relevant and being sensitive to the harsh circumstances of the moment, those that are prepared for eventual change will have a better chance of appealing to renewed market sentiment when the cloud lifts.
Author: Doug Church, MBA, is a co-founder of Phase 5 and co-lead of the Innovation practice. He has more than 25 years of experience conducting innovation, product, and go-to-market research. He brings extensive methodological expertise and strategic insight to clients. Doug is a Certified Marketing Research Professional (CMRP) and a member of ESOMAR. He has served on the boards of several organizations and spoken on numerous occasions at marketing research and industry events.
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