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 now start to ease lockdown restrictions, people and businesses are trying to discern what a COVID-19 world may look like for them.
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. They're also likely to continue for a significant amount of time, at least until a vaccine is developed (which is 12 to 18 months off by all forecasts) or herd immunity declared. And this will affect existing and future brand and consumer relationships.
For many brands, ‘makes me feel good being social’ imagery and experiences were a reliable pre-COVID template for building consumer relationships and engagement. However, attitudes have now changed towards physical social connection at both the individual and group levels, in light of ongoing health warnings.
A recent poll by Ipsos-Mori states between 50% and 70% of people in Australia, the UK, the US, 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 More than a third of people say they will continue to practice social distancing, even when lockdown is fully repealed. Many cultural touch traditions have been halted, such handshakes and hugging, even as far as the French Health Minister advising French citizens to stop kissing as a form of greeting.
For the foreseeable future, brands will not be able to rely on a broad ‘physical group feel-good social’ setting, nor will they be able to 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 do they only want to go to places with smaller groups of people and stringent health checks? Without these new insights helping shape brand content and narratives—and possibly even product development—a brand could easily find its existing brand equity swiftly eroding in the face of consumer ire.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated consumer expectations of brands doing good. they want to see genuine social corporate responsibility, not just pursuit of profit. This more intense ethical focus is reflected in a number of ways, from a site called “Did they help” (which details and ranks brands and celebrities on their positive contributions or lack thereof) to the 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 that consumers are not re-assessing what is important to them, including the brands they purchase and why.
There is also a lot of chatter about brands spending through a crisis in order to gain a competitive advantage when normalcy returns. The Great Depression, 9/11, the Asian Crisis of 1997 and the 2008 Great Financial Crisis are cited as examples. Whilst historical data may support this, the social, behavioural and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is already more significant, and it is happening in a world more digitally connected, more aware and more opinionated than ever before.
The new normal is yet to be established, but it will not be the same normal as before the pandemic started. Brands do have an opportunity in these uncertain times to develop competitive advantage, but only if done ethically, with insight and understanding of the new social environment.
Kristian Barnes, formerly APAC chief client officer at Dentsu Aegis Network and APAC CEO of Vizeum, is co-founder of consulting firm Moriarty, Flynn & Barnes in Singapore.