After many weeks of lockdown, it seems the first signs of normality are returning to many societies and market research activities across the globe.
This past week saw the confirmation of H/T/P’s first post-lockdown face-to-face qualitative research project – in Germany!
It’s still early days, but here as in other parts of the world, the picture over the last few weeks has remained fairly consistent: most projects are happening online, participation levels are high, the consumer mood is relatively positive all things considered.
In this week’s post, we take a closer look at consumer sentiment. Not just from a research perspective but also with regards to what people are expecting from brands and companies.
Over the past few weeks we have conducted a series of interviews with consumers around the world on their expectations post-lockdown. This work is currently being analysed and we will share the results soon. So watch this space… ;)
A couple of small spoilers, however: There are some signals that consumer motivations are not changing as significantly as some are anticipating. Obviously financial factors through the recession will take their toll and we can also expect that the shift to online retail will continue.
Secondly: everyone is talking about more mindful consumption. Our observations surfaced an interesting tension: Consumers tend to expect others to change their habits rather than seeing the need for behavioural change in themselves.
They criticize people flying halfway around the world on business trips – but are already thinking about booking flights for their own summer vacation. They criticize the mindless masses buying fast fashion, but see themselves as already being very reasonable in their own purchase habits.
It’s a bit like during the lockdown. People were often quick to criticize others’ social distancing etiquette – but tended to think that they were doing everything right.
Short-lived blips or signs of longer-term shifts? Only time will tell if we’re honest.
Let’s take a closer look at expectations from brands and companies.
Things as Normal – or a New Normal?
During the lockdown we asked all of the research participants we were in touch with during recruitment a few simple questions about their expectations.
Consumers seemed to be very much in two minds about the position brands and companies should take. – something that varied quite strongly by category.
The ratio of people expecting a change to those not expecting a change was about 60:40 – balanced, but with slightly more in favour of change.
The 40% who didn’t expect companies to behave or communicate much differently appreciated the sense of normality that brands and advertising can offer in a time of crisis.
Some consumers were clearly suffering from a certain media fatigue, given that the coronavirus situation has been the only news for the past two months.
Against this backdrop, advertising can re-assure, give a sense that things will get back to normal, that life goes on.
“Corona is important, no question at all. But there are no other subjects at the moment and every possibility to feel a bit of normality gives me a sense of relief. Advertising and traditional brands and companies give me this feeling”.
For those more critical of brands over-referencing the crisis in their advertising, their projections into the future tended to be that this crisis will pass just like others have and that things would get back to normal.
“I don’t think that much will change. As soon as life gets back to what it was, people are going to be just the same. So, I don’t think more companies and brands need to jump on the bandwagon.”
Taking a closer look at the 60% who do expect some changes, a lot of these consumers had taken positive note of some of the changes in the way companies had communicated over the past weeks.
There were frequent mentions of the stay-at-home campaigns many companies ran during the shutdown.
Some consumers had registered activities of companies like Pernod Ricard and Becks in producing hand sanitizer right at the beginning of the crisis, or companies like Nike and adidas producing protective equipment.
Many had heard that Coca-Cola had stopped advertising and was donating money to support health care workers and other initiatives.
People tended to be positive about companies taking concrete actions but were more critical of campaigns that were just about image. Particularly campaigns that are heavy on the emotions without giving any concrete support of what the brands behind them are doing to help.
“Big brands and companies need to show that they are behaving responsibly.”
The most negative examples quoted from this group were those of companies that hadn’t registered that certain things had changed:
“Just seeing advertising that shows an idealized world feels quite disconnected at the moment. Something quite fundamental has changed and the companies need to reflect that in their advertising.”
It seems there is a fine line between maintaining a sense of positivity in communication without becoming too detached from people’s current experiences.
“Advertising needs to adapt to these difficult times. We will see that the world is a different place now, and that is also what needs to be represented in advertising.”
What does this mean for Research?
The projects we’ve conducted over the past weeks have continued to see consumers participating in research willingly – consistently finding it easy to switch to “normality-mode” in the discussions across a range of topics and categories.
In online groups in the US, for example, even in severely affected areas where participants whose professional future was uncertain were able to discuss new product concepts, packaging ideas and designs as if life was shortly about to return to normal.
In many ways, consumers expect companies to keep doing what they do – developing new products that are exciting and relevant, marketing them in a way that creates desire and keeping our lives as consumers comfortable.
But beyond this there’s also an expectation for companies to behave more responsibly in what they do. Maybe also through lockdown, for example, people in many places have become more aware of the amount of waste their household produces. Awareness of packaging materials and their impact on the environment may be growing – simply because we have all spent more time at home.
Research in the past few weeks has also shown that relationships with some product categories has been slowly changing during the lockdown. Some things that were routine have become a focus and others that used to be more important have become more peripheral. Just due to the fact that we haven’t been able to go out and socialize. Many of us, for example, probably spent more time thinking about how we looked than how we cooked and we see that this has changed quite significantly for some.
It is probably too early to say how many of these changes will be permanent – but could be a good time to explore them in anticipation for the future.
One of the major shifts that some of the consumers in the survey talked about was the overall shift to online retail. We have seen in many markets where online retail was still slow in some sectors, whole new groups of consumers have started purchasing more online. Particular categories mentioned were groceries, household goods and other everyday products.
“They should use the digital possibilities more. This shows that brands are moving with the times.”
The feeling here is that this shift to online will create new rules for brands and advertising. In recent packaging research, for example we heard consumers referring to how packaging design for everyday items now needs to work as well in a digital context as it does in a physical store. . This may create a whole new set of rules regarding packaging design and on-pack messaging.
Whether consumers see their future behaviours changing is interesting, but we know as qualitative researchers that what people say is not necessarily what they do, even if words and attitudes often act as precursors to behavioural shifts.
Also, it will not be enough to just understand the effects of the Corona crisis, the global recession that is looming is likely to have a whole set of different effects on consumer behaviour and mood.
But as new behaviours, expectations and values slowly shift into place, it will be important for brands and categories to anticipate the future relationships consumers will have them.
On a higher level, it seems that brand purpose will continue to grow in significance in many areas. But there is also an increasing danger of companies looking like they are engaging in “coronawashing”. Brand purpose will need strong and tangible proof points. This was partly true of brand purpose in the past but will be even more essential in the future.
In terms of strategy in general, new touchpoints are emerging, new competitive contexts and new channels are becoming more visible. Meal kits compete with convenience offers in the supermarket which in-turn is in competition with home delivery. Very different channels and offers competing for a similar space.
Only sensitive 360° research approaches, carefully blending digital with analogue, will enable a view towards tangible futures, highlighting where large changes in behavior are to be expected, and where familiar consumption patterns will resume.
It may well be time to explore what some of the future consumer truths might be, rather than relying too heavily on data that was generated pre-Corona!
We will keep you posted!