Pivoting in Crisis #5: Changes for life, not just for coronavirus?

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26 March 2020

About pivoting in crisis

As the Covid-19 outbreak continues to spread behaviours are continuing to change. Just as the 2008 crash saw the birth of thousands of new businesses, Covid-19 will undoubtedly mean pivoting marketing strategies and ways of working. Several of the changes that coronavirus is causing will create new consumer needs. It is these changing needs that we are highlighting in this ongoing content series. In this piece we’ll look at whether the changes we are seeing are short-term or longer-term.

Covid-19 is changing behaviours: but how, and for how long?

While our basic human needs don’t change much, if at all, the way those needs are met and expressed does change. What we call consumer trends are reactions, responses to the changing world around us – in terms of the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legislative and Environmental (PESTLE) landscape, expressed through the lens of these underlying consumer needs. The current Covid-19 outbreak is an example of a major disruptor that is directly impacting the expression of our fundamental human needs.

There’s no denying that the coronavirus outbreak is changing the way we live. Attitudes and behaviours are shifting. In some cases, this is because of new rules and restrictions implemented in order to try to limit the spread of the outbreak. In others, the changes originate from consumers’ desire to make the best of their situation or to adapt to their new environment.  Similarly, some of these changes can be regarded as positive changes, others negative, but in theory they all represent new opportunities for marketers to respond in the form of new products or services or to communicate with customers and prospects in new and more engaging ways.

Temporary versus permanent change

One of the challenges in all of this is trying to work out whether the changes we are seeing are merely short-term, tactical responses to a change in circumstances that has been imposed on the British people, or whether some of these changes might stick. In truth, no-one really knows the answer. But whether a new attitude or behaviour becomes entrenched or not is dependent on a number of factors, some within our control as individuals, and others that are decided for us by our government, our employers or the businesses that serve us.

Causing behavioural change is, of course, one of the obsessions of marketing, with a huge literature all of its own (Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg, and Behaviour Change and the Science of Habit – David Neal are good start points here). Usually, the focus of the marketing activity is to break into established patterns of behaviour and to create an entirely new cycle of cues and rewards that becomes the new, entrenched behaviour, superseding the previous habit.

The current situation is, naturally, different. The breaks in behaviour have been imposed on the population rather than being adopted by choice. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t also become entrenched as the “New Normal”. The key issue, as ever, is whether the new behaviours offer significant advantages over the old ones: Are they cheaper? Are they easier or more efficient? Do they allow us more time with loved ones? Do they offer benefits in terms of sustainability or purpose? Will the changes be supported in the long-term e.g. by employers, businesses or family? It is such considerations that will drive the degree to which the lives we are living now look like the live we will live “after”.  Let’s take a look at a small number of the change we are seeing and speculate how things might evolve. 

TRAVEL

Life in Lockdown (NOW): Lockdowns within affected countries and travel restrictions between nations have effectively closed down the travel industry (link).

The immediate aftermath (NEXT): As restrictions are gradually lifted, we are likely to see some tentative, cautious and exploratory movement in the sector – most likely UK-based initially and then radiating out from there.

The Longer-term (LATER): Many in the travel industry are saying (hoping?) that long-term travel plans should be unaffected (link) and our gut feel is that they will be largely right. The question is whether the industry can survive until that point.

STREAMING MEDIA SERVICES

Life in Lockdown (NOW): Streaming services have been one of the beneficiaries of the increased time at home that consumers are experiencing, with some offering free trial periods and others having to scale back on features to lessen the impact on home bandwidth (link).

The immediate aftermath (NEXT): There is probably unlikely to be much by way of an immediate change, even after consumers are allowed back outside.

The Longer-term (LATER): As expenditure starts to shift back into the categories that consumers are currently excluded from (e.g. gyms, OOH dining, movies and theatres, travel, etc) streaming companies will have to act quickly and decisively to protect themselves from cancellations and revenue loss.

WORKING FROM HOME

Life in Lockdown (NOW): Those who can do so have been instructed to work from home forcing companies who had previously been resistant to it to find ways to make it work and placing huge pressure on connection infrastructures (link).

The immediate aftermath (NEXT): Once the lockdown lifts, workers will be encouraged back into their offices, both by employer pressures but also by a natural desire to reconnect with colleagues, particularly those from outside one’s immediate team.

The Longer-term (LATER): Once the novelty of reconnecting with old habits has faded, we’d expect workers to pressurise HR departments to adopt more flexible working patterns on the basis that “it worked well enough during lockdown, didn’t it?”.

VIRTUAL HEALTHCARE

Life in Lockdown (NOW): NHS England urged Britain’s 7,000 GP surgeries to reduce face-to-face appoints for patients displaying symptoms of Covid-19 and instead to assess patients online or via telephone and video appointments to mitigate the potential spread of coronavirus (link).

The immediate aftermath and the Longer-term (NEXT & LATER): Even without the restrictions associated with the current outbreak, those patients who have seen the benefits of a more remote service are unlikely to be willing to revert back to the old system, with its difficulties in getting appointments and time spent siting around in waiting rooms full of ill people. Telemedicine was an innovation that was likely to mainstream at some point in the future, but this will almost certainly be accelerated by coronavirus.

Other things to watch

Online shopping: Many have been forced to try online grocery shopping for the first time and although there have been issues coping with demand, we’d expect many to continue with their new habit.

Personal hygiene: We’d expect coronavirus personal hygiene routines (and perhaps the mores of social interaction) to have become so deeply entrenched that they are likely to persist even beyond the outbreak.

Fitness: Many will have shifted their workouts in-home via a combination of new machinery and online support. We suspect not all of them will return to their old gym habits.

Consumer electronics: Manufacturing has been forced to shut down and tech supply chains have been greatly disrupted. Replacement cycles for phones had been lengthening pre-outbreak as consumers perceived innovation to have reached a plateau so that new phones were largely launching merely on some minor iterative improvement to the quality of the camera. We may see even longer buying cycles and/or the market for second-hand devices may boom.

What does this mean for marketing?

Much of the brand activity we’ve seen to date has been focused on crisis management. We’ve seen zeitgeisty modification of brand logos to reference/encourage social distancing. We’ve experienced a deluge of email outreach purporting to care about how we’re coping. And we’ve seen some accused of downright exploitation or abuse, of us as consumers, of loopholes in governmental attempts to keep us safe or of workforces.

As we settle in for the long haul, we’d expect some of this hasty, ill thought out and, arguably crass work to fade away as common sense begins to prevail. Brands will surely realise that they need to focus on readying themselves for the new world. In part, that will be about ensuring that they survive to see that new world, by streamlining processes where necessary but it will also mean continuing to focus on the basics of marketing – building strong brands that offer products that people actually want, at prices they are prepared to pay, via channels they want to use.

In some cases this will be about bringing spend forward – travel brands are frantically trying to encourage long-term bookings, for example, while some independent food service retailers are trying to maintain cash flow by asking their communities to buy vouchers for redemption once they are allowed to reopen. But, in the main, the key effort will be about salience – keeping your brand front of mind so that once the cash starts to flow again, it is your brand that consumers go to for their first post-lockdown coffee, show, holiday, meal, drink, or whatever.

What next?

As the story of the coronavirus outbreak continues to unfold, new challenges will emerge and these, more than likely, will also represent the need for brands to quickly pivot to support a society under pressure. We’ll be continuing to explore more impacts of the coronavirus outbreak so be sure to check back in from time to time.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group. 

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