5 Keys to understanding changing consumer behaviors during COVID-19 and beyond

Jackson Kushner

Not long ago, we were joined by Nathalie Nahai, international speaker and best-selling author, as our special guest host to lead a panel discussion on a 2-part virtual event titled: “How To Harness Changing Consumer Behaviors, and Build Brand Resilience in the New Normal.” In this first post, we unearth key global consumer behavior trends and expectations of brands, as we emerge from lockdown.

Foot shakes and elbow-taps? Virtual meetings and endless takeout? As we continue adjusting to new social norms in all aspects of our personal lives, many brands are trying to understand the psychology behind recent shifts in customer behavior. This is especially important when trying to learn how to create and maintain more meaningful consumer relationships, both in the short and long term.

“If we can emerge from this chapter having learned how to respond and adapt to our environments, the better placed we’ll be to build resilience and future success.”
-Nathalie Nahai

As behaviors continue to evolve in the face of changing, uncertain environments, the customer you knew three months ago is likely not the same today. As international speaker and bestselling author Nathalie Nahai suggests, “resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties,” and it is a skill that relies on our ability to “acknowledge, understand and respond to the key changes we are facing.” So, we took a deep dive with our host and expert panelists to unpack five key consumer behavior shifts observed that brands should pay close attention to.

What we value: Consuming from the safety of the home

Almost everyone has seen a shift in values since lockdown began in late March. So, with out-of-home consumption slowing down, it’s no surprise that consumers are reappraising their priorities. Many consumers are now prioritizing products that support a more sustainable lifestyle, making purchases aligned with new health and fitness goals, and seeking new ways to grow produce at home. Of course, consumers in almost every country are doing their best to comply with social distancing guidelines, and as such are placing a premium on the ability to consume from the comfort of their home. Incorporating modern features like ecommerce and modern customer service has been important for years, and the lockdown has only reinforced this trend.

What we consume: Conscientious consumers choose local, sustainable products

The recent fragility of international structures presents a growing trend toward conscientious consumption that favors local and sustainable alternatives. Consumers are gravitating toward brands, shops, and restaurants that feel local. The increase in localism, propelled by recent distrust in goods shipped in from abroad, demonstrates a greater need for brand transparency and supply-chain traceability. As the conscientious consumer becomes more mindful about the consequences of their choices, brands should be prepared to act on a renewed commitment to sustainability and conscientious behavior.

Profits vs. people: The alignment of values and actions

Companies often tout lofty moral ideals, but many fail to live up to them — which can alienate value-driven consumers. By way of illustration, Nahai shares an example from an American clothing brand that sent out reassuring emails to their employees stating “we’re in this together” — a nice sentiment, but this message of solidarity was undermined by the fact that they were simultaneously laying off temporary workers. Other businesses have committed similar faux pas, including restaurants giving staff an ultimatum to either come back to work without a mask or lose their job.

This sort of disconnect between a brand’s expressed values and those they actually enact can have a huge impact on brand reputation and consumer relationship. As companies tackle the challenge to adapt in the face of uncertainty and changing consumer expectations, it’s important to remember that putting profits ahead of people can erode consumer trust and thus create significant long-term problems.

Generation gap: The generational shift that influences global change

Millennials and Gen Z (broadly speaking, the 18 – 34 age cohort) tend to hold brands to higher standards when it comes to consumer engagement. This group has also been among the most likely to suffer financially as a result of COVID-19. Despite this — or perhaps in keeping with it — they have remained outspoken advocates for societal change and progressive ideals. People are reprioritizing their choices to better align with the values and actions of the brands they choose to be associated with.

This dovetails nicely with our fifth key trend.

Doing good: Fairness and positive societal influence can build brand resilience

“Doing good not only does good for our society as a whole, but for brands it builds reputational resilience.”
-Nathalie Nahai

2020 data suggests that people who have been most financially impacted by the global crisis are also reported as those who are most invested in companies ‘doing good.’ Nahai claims that “acts of fairness and positive societal influence can build reputational resilience,” and that “the most influential triggers to enhance reputational resilience can encompass four main pillars: ethics, social impact, genuine brand personality, and treatment of employees. Brands are therefore expected to adhere to and be genuine when demonstrating a code of behavioral ethics to enhance reputation.”

In 2020, brands are navigating challenging times. Adapting and pivoting to new and shifting customer needs is vital for continued growth or survival. However, this period also gives brands clear insight into behavioral expectations customers are placing on brands they choose to purchase from, which, if used wisely, can enable brands to better align with their audiences and build deeper engagement. These 5 trends — from reinforcing the need for world-class customer service as customers continue in-home or mobile purchases, to greater transparency in societal influence and brand ethics — are clear indicators for digital customer engagement in this new era, and can provide a guiding light for brands to create customers for life.

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