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23 MAR. 2020

Our Way Forward: How Should Brands Evolve in Times of A Global Health Crisis?

Ray Ju and Archana Mohan

Labbrand New York Office

Three months into a global effort in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, it seems what we don’t know about our collective future is still far more prevalent than what is known so far. But one thing that is almost certain is that the economic impact caused by the pandemic will be consequential, while the psychological impact will almost certainly follow consumers worldwide for a very long time.

Brands need to reconfigure gears right now. Especially for global brands, it’s never too soon to start forming a post-crisis brand strategy. And judging by what we have seen thus far, there are a few hypotheses that brands should immediately start to contemplate.

The Future of Mobility

With people weary of travel domestically and globally, thousands of flights canceled worldwide and countries closing their borders, the travel and tourism industry is arguably one of the hardest hit sectors. On the other hand, with densely populated cities being put into lockdown and public transportation being shut to curb the viral spread, there’s also a growing need and urgency amongst people who want to take (back) the liberty of mobility by driving cars to simply get around the community.

The travel and tourism industry is arguably one of the hardest hit sectors (source: scmp.com; Unsplash)

The essence of the paradox here is really what mobility could mean to people and to the future of our society. And a shift towards a community-based and experience-oriented realignment has already been gaining steam long before the emergence of the health crisis. That is to the contrary of the explorative, adventurous, and the world being your playground type of narrative that has been dominating the brand communication for years. More and more people are correlating quality of life with, not necessarily living in a big city or traveling far beyond, but rather a shorter commute with opportunities of remote working, and a closer and smaller community that shares similar interests and values.

For brands, the concept of mobility is becoming less about getting from A to B, but more about the emotional needs of having a nice experience and getting a sense of liberty, not by how much distance one travels, but by how much freedom and independence that experience bestows against social traps like having to commute from here to there to go to work, having to pay higher rent to get the experience of a big city, and right now, having to readjust life due to the pandemic.

People working remotely and exercising at home (source: goodcore.co.uk; shape.com)

Homes Becoming Hubs

Guess which start-up company in the U.S. has been repeatedly cited as a potential beneficiary of the novel coronavirus? It’s Peloton, the New York based company whose main product is a stationary bicycle, with a price tag of at least US$2,245, that allows users to remotely participate in spinning classes. Though the company has received its fair share of skepticism over the years, it should not be overlooked that people’s ideas about the very concept of home and what role home plays in a person’s life have been gradually changing. The shift from “downtime nest” towards “uptime hub” will only accelerate when more people who have the luxury of teleworking opt to stay at home to work remotely, to continue physical exercise, and to go about their usual activities that are supposed to happen outdoors during this crisis - from exercising at the gym to a cluster of home-fitness brands like Peloton, Mirror, and Tonal; from traditional home gaming console to fitness-driven and modular Nintendo consoles started with Wii and made popular by Switch and its Ring Fit Adventure offering; and from gourmet experiences at restaurants to meal delivery and meal kit services like Seamless and HelloFresh; and the list goes on.

Home fitness brand Peloton; Nintendo's Ring Fit (source: Inc.com; pcmarket.com)

While it’s way too soon to declare beneficiaries or even winners out of the crisis provided that there would be any, the thought of how brands have re-imagined the concept of home over the years is still startling as homes are becoming hubs.

The Testament of Sustainability

From Hong Kong, to the U.S., and even Australia, one of the most unexpected sought-after shelf items amid the coronavirus panic hoarding is toilet paper. While it may not have a connection with the need to self-protect as directly as face masks or sanitizers, psychologists and behavioral economists are citing toilet papers’ necessity and long shelf life for its instant global celebrity. Given that we live in a world that has been for decades dominated by hyper-consumerism, a concept that can be simply defined as “consumerism for the sake of consuming”, it seems extremely refreshing and ironic to hear the necessity and long shelf life argument being leveraged for the value of a product.

One of the most unexpected sought-after shelf items amid the coronavirus panic hoarding is toilet paper (source: bostonglobe.com)

We may have finally arrived at a tipping point where sustainability and waste-cutting are no longer just talking points but something that requires brands to take collective and imperative actions, especially when consumer confidence worldwide is being rattled, and this is no time to rely heavily on the spending power of Chinese consumers anymore. It’s time for brands to pivot the focus from generating instant gratification and impulsive spending to a model of delayed gratification and sustained emotional connections. For example, while the fashion industry has been at the epicenter of wasteful production and consumption, movements led by conscious brands did find notable success exemplified by Everlane’s timeless style and durable texture offerings as well as Rothy’s use of “upcycled” materials.

Everlane (source: altaviawatch.com)

How Market Research Can Help Brands Be Resilient?

The suddenness and the extent of the impact of this coronavirus pandemic would not have been fathomable, let alone believable, at the dawn of 2020. More than anything else, this stands testament to the fact that never before have we been so interdependent and connected as citizens of the world.

We have been seeing a confluence of intellects and megatrends that are country/race/gender/religion agnostic such as “conscious consumerism” - in the consumers’ pursuit of seeking a oneness with the brand, consumers are increasingly focusing not just on the final product but the story behind the making - right from people, ingredients and process.

However, brands are often too parochial in the view of the trajectory and dependent variables that are key to their success. Owing to this, brands often don’t consider the context of choice; not just within the category but within the larger societal base and the impact of global cultural confluence. To truly understand and cater to the changing priorities and behavioral shifts in the face of crisis and fear, brands have to rethink the way we have traditionally aimed at understanding consumers

Brands need to keenly obeserve the consumers' life habits (source: dcba.lacounty.gov; ewg.org)

  1. Prioritize understanding the global manifestation of underlying shifts in attitudes & behaviors (e.g. conspicuous consumption to mindful consumption); through both hard and soft data, as it is important to view hard data through the lens of human stories to provide contextual relevance.
  2. Keenly observe the formation of new habit rituals and consumption patterns - what is the new normal, what are the signifiers of this new routine, what are the wins vs. the losses? With new habits being formed there is an opportunity window for brands to showcase their purpose and value through which they can cement their place in the consumers’ life.
  3. Lead with purpose, now is the time to display empathy, inspire movement, assuage fears - brands can ably perform these roles only when there is a deep alignment with the psyche of the consumers. This alignment can be spurred by going deeper to understand the cultural world of the consumer expressed through signs, codes and symbols.

We are keen to see how this story unfolds and the lasting impact this pandemic leaves on us as global citizens and consumers, and help brands best communicate relevance and value in these challenging periods. And brands, in this unusual time if not always, should more than anything let humanity, compassion, and empathy lead their decision-making. 

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