My daughter is climbing the wall. Literally.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the social distancing and the shelter-in-place orders, she spent 3 hours a day, 4 days a week at a rock-climbing gym. Rock climbing is her thing – keeping her happy, fit and anxiety-free. But these days…needs must, right? Luckily for her we live in a loft with brick walls, giving her many full and half crimps to utilize.
This is one tiny example of the myriad of ways that life isn’t normal these days, and quite frankly, a pretty benign one. Grocery store employees are now ‘front line’, alongside the tireless healthcare workers. Luxury brands and distilleries are making hand sanitizers. Haute Couture designers are making masks. Whole states are in shelter-in-place lockdown mode. As the Washington Post said recently, “…this will radically alter the U.S.”.
So, we can all agree that normal life has gone by the wayside – and we know things can get worse, much worse, dystopian even. Sequoia Capital, Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capital firm, has declared the disease the “Black Swan of 2020”. Black Swan refers to a rare, unforeseen event that carries potentially severe consequences – or, if you are glass half-full like me, opportunities.
Without being crass, we do have a unique opportunity right now to explore not only the role of corporate America as both citizen and leader, but also the possibility to redefine both brand and product; their meanings and roles in people’s lives, in its rawest form. Why? Because during times of great upheaval and uncertainty, consumers become highly sensitive and responsive – our System 1 decision making is firing harder and faster as we try to keep ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods safe. Part of creating that safety is ensuring they have what they need. Right now we are all deciding what our basic needs are for the foreseeable future. In other words, what are the absolute minimum resources necessary for long-term physical well-being, and is your brand or product on that list? And, secondly, how long after ‘normal’ returns will these new behaviors last?
As we consumers are making these decisions in the moment, in the aisle, or online, are our defaults the same as they were six months ago? One month ago? Last week? Highly unlikely, as the context has changed – and it will keep changing. Every day brings something new for us to make sense of which will then change how we act. We are all caught in a vicious circle, driven by things out of our control.
I asked several women this week about their shopping habits and what changes have occurred in their consumer mindset and their shopping list. I walked them back through their journey, trying to understand their “Feel, Do, Think” at each step.
Not surprisingly, the feeling of urgency grew stronger the closer they got to the shopping event, their idea of “need” growing exponentially as did their worry that they might not be able to fulfill those needs. All of them started their shop in a state of high anxiety. This anxiety drove behavior, as one woman said after, that she didn’t recognize in herself at all.
Looking back at what they came home with and why, we saw common consumer behaviors:
- Generally, when it came to absolute needs, brand rarely played a part – they grabbed what they saw on the shelf:
a. “…toilet paper is toilet paper right now; I just need to make sure I get home with some.”
b. This is confirmed by a recent Shopkick survey that found 85% of Americans are less picky about brand names during times like these.
- When it comes to comfort, brand absolutely mattered, and more often than not, it turned out to be the more expensive brand:
a. “…I went to three stores to find Kraft Mac & Cheese – almost in a fugue state – I was driven because I needed to know I could count on it. It needs to be familiar to me, and feeling like I could go home without it made me even more anxious…”
- They all started at their favorite store, but once they felt unable to fulfill their needs, place didn’t matter:
a. “I never thought of Ace Hardware or Lowe’s as a place to “shop”, but when I went and found their cleaning supply aisle, I felt as if they knew I was coming… god, I felt good in that moment.’
Simply put, brand choices fill a range of different needs during times of great upheaval than they do during normal times. Drivers, as we in the biz call them, move up or down the decision tree based on what the emotional need calls for. And, how you meet their needs during this time will have an enormous impact on what happens to that relationship when the threat is over.
To this end, here are some of the questions we’d like to see brands asking:
- What are the absolute needs of my consumer right now? Which are absolutely absolute, and which are nice to have? And how will this designation change over the course of this event?
- Which brands and products have a role in fulfilling their absolute needs? If they can’t get those brands and products, how does that make them feel and who do they blame?
a. What do we need to do to ensure they have physical, fiscal, and mental access to them?
b. How do we keep our finger on the pulse so that we can adapt as needed? And possibly most important of all, what happens when this is all over? Will your brand have survived? What consumer behaviors will be sticking?
- What lateral moves are our consumer making to find what they need? How is their behavior changing?
There are also bigger questions all brand should be asking themselves, such as what is their wider social responsibility during this event? As management professor Abagail McWilliams says, “A pandemic creates an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to invest in their brand reputation because their authentic socially responsible actions can pay off exponentially…generating wide-spread favorable media attention that enhances reputation.”
It’s hard not to read that and feel a little icky, but the reality is that consumers want – even need – brands to step up and into the breach these days. The question is, are you going to and are you going to do it right for your profit, your people and the planet?