By Kristian Barnes
The current social and economic impact of COVID-19 is well understood as we are experiencing its effect on our daily lives but as countries start to ease lockdown restrictions, people and businesses are trying to discern what a COVD-19 world may look like.
Societal behavioural changes such as social distancing, working from home, reduced physical experiences such as shopping, events and eating out, and less international mobility are being normalized. These are likely to continue for a while, at least until a vaccine is developed (which is 12-18 months off by all forecasts) and this will affect existing and future brand and consumer relationships.
A recent poll by Ipsos-Mori stated 50% and 70% of people in Australia, UK, USA, Canada, China, France and Brazil do not want any businesses, where large social interactions may happen, to open until COVID-19 is fully under control. More than a third of people say they will continue to practice social distancing, even when lockdown is fully repealed. Even many cultural touch traditions have been shunned such as handshakes and hugging.
For many brands, the “makes me feel good being social” imagery or experience which was the pre COVID-19 consumer relationship/engagement building template is no longer applicable. COVID-19 has shifted societies and individuals’ attitudes towards physical social connections, proximities and behaviours.
Moving forward, brands will not be able to rely on the broad “physical group feel good social” setting or even use touch as a way to connect and entice consumers to their products. Already a number of brands such as KFC and Hershey have had to reconsider campaigns because of this.
Brands are going to have to understand consumers' new COVID-19 social behaviours and attitudes, on top of any existing demographic and psychographic profiling. For example, are your target consumers happy to go to a packed bar, busy restaurant, crowded mall or packed concert, or not? Without these new insights helping shape brand content and narratives, possibly even product development, a brand could easily find its existing brand equity swiftly eroded in the face of consumer ire.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated consumers' expectation of brands doing good, of genuine social corporate responsibility, of not just pursuing profits. This increased ethical focus is reflected in a number of ways, from a site called “Did they help” (www.didtheyhelp.com) which details and ranks brands (and celebrities) positive contribution of good deeds (or not) in the COVID-19 situation; through to public outrage at the reported treatment of warehouse workers by Amazon.
Brands' ethical behaviour is under more scrutiny from consumers who have more time to spend on social media and watching/reading the news. It would be foolish of brands to think in these traumatic times consumers are not re-assessing what is important to them, including the brands they purchase and why.
The new normal is yet to be established, but it will not be the same normal as pre-COVID-19. To deliver future growth, brands will have to behave ethically, with insight and understanding of the new social environment.