Waiting out the storm as changing consumer habits slow down
Welcome back to our New Behaviors Series. In this series we’re not just showing how brands are responding today to COVID-19 – we’re looking to the future and anticipating actions brands can take today to meet the norms of the next few years.
Last post we looked at how this new world may be extremely beneficial to some brands, but with its own pitfalls. This time we’ll be navigating the difficult inverse: Recover, the quadrant where the demand for your products and services has almost completely dried up. The good news is that certain changed consumer habits are predicted to return to normal. Some categories experiencing this standstill are travel (like Delta Air Lines and Carnival Cruise Line), hospitality (Marriott International and MGM Resorts International), and retailers (like Macy’s and Cinnabon).
How to know when to Recover your brand from the impact of new consumer habits
Recover scenarios are exceptionally difficult scenarios to be in, both operationally and mentally. Brands that once operated at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy are now being undermined by threats to our base physiological and safety needs. Consumers are turning away from brands that operate at the higher levels, bringing demand to dangerous and unprecedented lows. In addition, businesses where physical proximity is essential are rightfully suspending activity due to safety concerns. Cash burn, dropping stock, layoffs, and furloughed employees…this is the immediate situation faced by many in this quadrant.
But being in this quadrant is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for reflection, soul-searching, and realignment. According to our research, 34% of people view changes to their habits and the world as temporary. The world will return to a version of its old self, but the current era will define how your brand and demonstrate how you lead. It won’t be easy, but this quadrant is full of ash scenarios and your goal is to rise like a phoenix.
Scenario 1: You can't engage your audience like before, so how do you strengthen brand loyalty?
For some brands, you’re closed down and you can’t operate, either due to demand or safety concerns. This is especially true for those of you dependent on large gatherings, like movie theaters or businesses in malls, airports, and concert and sporting venues. We know that the situation will change and people will return to these businesses. But what to do in the meantime?
Problem: Your normal business practices are shut down.
Action: As we’ve mentioned before, your brand is not just your products or your services. Your brand is also what you stand for and audiences are drawn to purpose-driven brands. A low-cost way to continue your relationship with audiences is to build a community around your purpose and brand values. This can expand your reputation and engage with your consumers in new ways. It may not make money right now, but it absolutely builds and strengthens brand loyalty, a priceless commodity before, during, and especially after a pandemic
Example: Businesses typically found in a mall food court or an airport have been hit hard. Some are switching to delivery options or at-home kits. But fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A has taken a different approach. They’re stepping completely out of their wheelhouse . . . and are creating a virtual band. They’ve asked parents of K-12 children to film and submit videos of their children playing “Rockin’ Robin”. This new foray into music production does nothing for their bottom line. It does, however, create a way for people to be part of something larger. It attracts and builds a community beyond fans of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. This is how Chick-Fil-A lives its brand values and invites others to join. They are a family brand and they are creating an outlet for families, so necessary today. And of course, the song they chose has an avian theme – very on-brand. While this may not move sales today, it does everything to build brand recognition and loyalty for tomorrow.
Future: Will community-building efforts like this become more commonplace? How invested in the future of customers will brands become? Will Chick-Fil-A release educational material? Will Nike start giving career advice (Just do it, whatever that it is)? How can airlines become better connected with their passengers? The answers to these questions depend completely on your brand purpose and values. No matter what, we expect this to open up the door for brands to have an expansive array of diverse offerings that grow from connections made today.
“We see this as an opportunity to build on our reputation.” (New Behaviors Research, April 2020).
Scenario 2 – Because new consumer behaviors disrupted your business, your brand risks becoming obsolete
You’re experiencing a domino effect of devastating consequences for your business. You know things won’t always be this way, but you’re worried you’ll just barely survive with a too-small marketing budget and no recognition to compete in the new world.
Problem: You’re losing momentum and attention.
Action: For the time being, make your products more accessible to more people than ever before. We know that’s easy for us to say. But right now, your options for generating cash are very limited. Goodwill is the most powerful currency for you today. Do what you have to to ensure your business remains solvent, but your brand’s survival relies on you maintaining your place in the mind’s of your audiences.
Example: Museums have not been top of mind for many people lately, a continuation of a long-lasting trend. Before COVID-19, nearly one-third of museums surveyed in the United States were either in the red or close to it. For an industry that was already struggling, this pandemic will be disastrous. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is projecting to lose $100 million dollars and museums across the globe will lay off significant portions of their workforce. A third of museums in the United States will not reopen if closures continue.
But instead of doing nothing, many museums are giving away digital access for free to everyone. They aren’t charging for access, nor are they only giving access to first-responders, a caveat to many charitable efforts. Even niche museums are moving online. People have so much to see, like Porsches or Japan’s infamously secretive Studio Ghibli museum? Some museums are creating additional content beyond digital tours, like the Met’s drawing classes. With people bored at home, viewing works of art and poking around an online exhibit may be just the sort of calm technology activity our brains need. In addition, actions like this may very well change racial demographics in museum attendances. Currently in the U.S., people of color represent only 9% of museum visitors. This sort of radical accessibility will hopefully lift those numbers and introduce fine arts, sciences, and history to more people than ever before. We are potentially witnessing a new era of democratized art. Once quarantine orders are lifted and restrictions are eased, museums will see increased attendance. But people will only think of visiting if museums are already on their minds. Museums offering free access are whetting the appetite and improving the likelihood that patrons will want to see and experience their collections IRL.
Future: We can’t help but wonder what other alternative offer structures business and organizations will implement in order to reach more people. Will digital not be a perk, but rather the first option? Will tiered access and multi-layered pay models become more commonplace? How robust can auxiliary products and services be, all in order to better communicate the brand’s positioning? If so, how can all these offerings work together? And what are the overlooked customer demographics that brands will seek to engage during this time? This is a particularly rich scenario for B2B brands to find new partnerships and audiences.
Scenario 3 – You want your brand impact to feel heroic
Right now we’re hearing a lot about heroes, like healthcare workers and other essential business employees. And they absolutely are the frontline in keeping so many of us safe. But for those of you not in those fields, it becomes hard to talk about actions or charity in a way that doesn’t seem dismissive to those who risk their lives.
Problem: You want to do good acts without appearing self-righteous.
Action: Times of crises allow brands to prove their mettle and gain ironclad loyalty. An excellent opportunity to stand by, support, and invest in your team as much as possible. Now is the time to experiment with creative work schedules and styles. Amy Balliett, CEO of our agency, Killer Visual Strategies, implemented a four-day workweek for her offices back in 2017. She says “I think what we’re about to see, as all of these companies that have been set in that tradition for so long are forced out of it, that there’s going to be a new level of trust and a new willingness to consider alternatives to the traditional going to the office nine-to-five.” You can highlight how you’re helping your internal team to show how you’ve truly reevaluated your priorities and changed your own values. Everyone loves an underdog-cum-hero and now is your moment to rise up as a leader. Start today on your comeback story and commit to delivering it.
Example: There are too many examples of brands showing their COVID-19 actions to count. But the ads and brand efforts that get the most traction are the ones where a promise is loudly pledged, and the proof is crystal clear. For instance, a handful of CEOs have announced that they will not lay off any employees. Statements like these are, of course, a huge relief for the employees. But it’s also a testament to the audiences, current customers and not, that these brands value and care for their employees. In fact, Material's research shows that taking care of your own is a valid business strategy, with 54% of consumers saying they will stop buying their preferred brands if they don’t feel the companies are doing good by their employees.
Today, you can’t get louder than Twitter. In an eight-part action plan, Marc Benioff of Salesforce encouraged all CEOs to take a 90-day “no lay off” pledge. He then followed it up with another tweet that his own company will not be conducting any “significant” layoffs and will pay hourly workers, like cleaners, while their offices are closed. He encouraged others to do the same, citing Ohana, the Hawaiian term for “family”. Benioff is setting himself and his company up as the heroes coming out of COVID-19.
Future: This is an extremely fascinating moment for many brands. Will private brands be the next wellspring of heroes? What other norms will corporations change? Will these sorts of actions generate fierce loyalty? How far can the loyalty between a brand go before the adoption goes from lifestyle to lifeline? Could brands become new schools of thought or even religion? If we take the intangible aspects of your brand and transform them into belief, you have the very real possibility to position your brand as the next savior.
“The ecosystem surrounding them will change, but the human values that guide the desire behind them won’t change at all.” (New Behaviors Research, April 2020).
Brainstorm ways to engage an audience with developing consumer behaviors
If you’ve found yourself in a Recover scenario, you might feel stuck. But this is your opportunity to rise to the occasion, however inventively you can. It’s a trial by fire to embrace new aspects of your brand and become a leader.
Your brand building blocks can go far in brainstorming new, brand-authentic ways to engage with your audiences and your employees. Your brand purpose and brand values are instrumental in revealing these opportunities. Your messaging can communicate perseverance that might unlock a new chapter for your brand. Like so many of us right now, use this moment to take stock of yourself and your real emotional connection with your audiences. There are energy and potential in this quadrant. You might be surprised at the wealth you already have to work with and hopefully will come back stronger than ever.