‘Times they are a-changin’: how Covid-19 has accelerated change in consumer behaviours

Whatever your business or industry it’s clear that we won’t be returning to anything like business as usual. The world has changed, and if businesses are to succeed, they must learn how to change too, says Nathalie Nahai

Amidst the ongoing unpredictability of the pandemic, businesses – and SMEs in particular – have had to adapt dramatically, and fast. From translating their goods and services online, to supporting employees to work remotely, it’s no wonder that, as we stutter our way out of the lockdowns, resilience is a theme on many people’s minds.

Defined as our ability to develop the skills (whether emotional, psychological, or physical) to cope with adversity, our capacity to bounce back from challenging situations can be what enables us not only to survive, but thrive, when the going gets tough. And it’s a quality that we can, both as individuals and as organisations, actively cultivate. On a personal level, it can mean learning to regulate our emotions through mindfulness and therapeutic techniques, reframing failure as feedback, or cultivating optimism. When it comes to consumer-brand relationships, however, it can mean taking an altogether different approach – namely, empowering our customers to consciously live according to their values.

Research has long shown us that when we experience challenge and turmoil it is often this ability to enact the principles, we hold dear that can enable us to go the course and successfully come out the other side. We know, for example, that when encountering extreme adversity, if we are able to connect with a deeper sense of meaning, it’s possible to experience what is known as post-traumatic growth – a process that deepens our strength, wisdom and appreciation for life, ultimately resulting in greater personal development. So when it comes to considering the extraordinary context of today’s consumers, if we can understand and connect with these deeper psychological currents, we will be much better placed as brand and business leaders, to respond to them.

Purpose-driven brands

In fact, when we look at the biggest changes in consumer behaviours, especially among younger generations, we see that this search for purpose-driven brands with whom consumers can share their values has really amplified in the last 18 months. It’s no longer good enough to buy a pair of regular sneakers – to really derive value from such a purchase, not only must they look good, they must also do good.

Building upon emerging trends from previous years, and despite predictions to the contrary, the hardship and turmoil faced by Gen-Z and Millenials have catalysed their expectations that brands proactively contribute not only to their profit margins, but to wider society and beyond. And given the context, it makes perfect sense. In the face of an increasingly unstable climate, the proliferation of tech-mediated relationships and an uncertain future, it’s no wonder that swathes of people are looking for something a bit deeper than the next run-of-the-mill product or experience.

Beyond the escapist realm of media, the fact is that when it comes to goods and services, it’s no longer sufficient simply to offer the taste of fleeting pleasure – to have real impact, brands must also offer purpose, a maxim that the global beer company, BrewDog, knows well. One of the first companies of its kind to announce its carbon negative status back in August 2020, BrewDog’s commitment to pro-climate action served not only as a clarion call to competitors in their field, but also to customers old and new wishing to enjoy a pint without it costing the earth. Whether consciously or not, this specific decision empowered their consumers to live up to their aspired values, enabling them to put their money where their mouths are.

Brand reputation

So where do businesses go from here? Well, at a time in which organisations of all kinds are under more scrutiny than ever before, if they are to thrive, they must be able to establish and protect their brand reputation to weather the storms. From treating one’s employees fairly and ensuring ethical practice business-wide, to having a genuine brand personality and demonstrating positive social impact, businesses must now think much more holistically about how they can generate long-term progress across these key areas and more.

Whatever your industry, whoever your customers, a new reality is becoming increasingly clear: simply providing a service or product that fulfils a given function won’t cut it any more. If you want to have any real impact or longevity, you must dig deeper and find a way to resonate with an increasingly demanding public. And this means you must stand for something.

Whether demonstrating a good ESG record (a pre-requisite), or publicly standing in support of certain social justice issues (and evincing the internal structures to support external claims), brands, businesses and organizations are having to demonstrate their worth far beyond their commitment to shareholders. Against a turbulent backdrop, Gen-Z and Millennials are holding brands and employers to higher account, pushing for organizational change and demanding greater civic and social responsibility from the businesses they interact with, a trend that is rippling out across all manner of sectors.

From increased interest in local, sustainable goods with clear provenance, to products and services that reflect customer lifestyles and ideals, the demand for ethical practices in business and beyond will only accelerate as time goes on, with the cornerstones of fairness, honesty and responsibility cementing their place as the driving forces behind this shift. But simply knowing about this change in priorities and preferences won’t be enough to guarantee business success. If organisations are to become more future-proof, they must orient their approach around a set of values without falling into the trap of virtue-signalling. So how can they do this?

Mission-based marketing

As organisations of all stripes jump on the bandwagon of mission-based marketing, it’s become embarrassingly easy to find examples of woke-washing, green-washing and any other kind you might imagine. Yet one can also find shining examples of those that have been able to maintain their integrity, build upon their reputation, and connect more meaningfully with customers over the long-term – a feat that can bring a host of rewards. Quite aside from the obvious benefits of greater customer loyalty, deeper brand attachment and increased resilience to economic downturns, having a strong track record is also known to engender greater understanding by consumers and stakeholders when mistakes happen – so how might businesses tailor their approach to foster and demonstrate their integrity?

Whether expressed as adherence to a set of values and ethics, or through an unwavering commitment to certain moral principles, such as justice, fairness and honesty, integrity is essential to our ability to form trustworthy long-lasting relationships. And throughout the course of my research for my book, Business Unusual, I found time and again that those businesses that were able to display a high level of integrity, abide by what I conceive of as the ‘four Cs’: commitment, congruence, consistency and coherence.

The first ‘C’ is about making an explicit (often public) commitment to the principles you stand for, whether that’s inclusion, respect, openness, honesty, fairness or any other cherished values. The second ‘C’ is about being congruent in word and deed, and aligning what you say with what you do. Far more than a cliché, walking the talk has been found to influence employee performance and even shape commitment levels towards the organisation. The third ‘C’ is about being consistent over time, and demands that we display the patience and tenacity to establish a strong track record that people can believe in. The fourth and final ‘C’ refers to being coherent in intention and behaviour, and doing the right thing for the right reason. Although it may sound a bit loftier than the rest, we’re actually pretty good at sniffing out when people (or brands) are doing something because it looks good (or because they are legally compelled to), and it is on this final ‘C’ that businesses often slip up.

Whatever your business or industry, as we continue to build our way out of this crisis, it’s clear that we won’t be returning to anything like business as usual. The world has changed, and if businesses are to succeed in this new landscape, then they must learn how to change too.

Nathalie Nahai, is author of Business Unusual: Values, Uncertainty and the Psychology of Brand Resilience, out 3 September 2021, published by Kogan Page.

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