How businesses are responding to the pandemic and the impact on consumer behaviour
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
"Star Trekkin”, a 1987 song by the British band, The Firm, misquoted Mr Spock, from the hit T.V. series, Star Trek, through their song's chorus:
"It's life, Jim, but not as we know it..."
What's that got to do with anything I hear you ask? Well, for many people, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will mean life will forge on, but not as we knew it.
As of 19th April 2020, at 16:40 hrs (BST), about 2.36 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease. The death toll is approximately 162 thousand, and about 607 thousand patients have recovered. The data is dynamic and it continues to change moment by moment. Retrieved from Worldometer.
The perceived existential threat is no longer just malevolent groups (i.e. terrorists and rogue nations), but microscopic parasites (viruses) that are invisible to the naked eye. Within a matter of weeks, their impact has ravaged global economies. The world has changed as a result of this. Brands must transform too as a result.
Here are five strategic pillars for brands to consider in response to the current economic uncertainties and their impact on commerce:
Consumer behaviour change
Supply chain resilience
This article will focus on the 'consumer behaviour change' strategic pillar.
Those we have lost, and the selflessness of the brave
COVID-19 continues to impact individuals, families, communities and nations. For individuals who have lost loved ones due to the coronavirus, things will never be the same again. The pain felt of losing a loved one, who under normal circumstances would still be here, is unimaginable. I think of my extended family member who recently passed due to coronavirus exacerbating her underlying health condition, which resulted in her untimely death.
My heart also grieved for a friend whose wife's young life was cut short due to the pandemic. She left behind a husband and two very young children.
Amid the coronavirus triggered deaths, we hear many stories of bravery and selflessness by healthcare and social care professionals and volunteers who risk their lives to save others. We owe these professionals more than just gratitude or a gesture of appreciation. We owe them a significant reinvestment of our GDP to ensure they are fully and properly equipped to carry out their services.
The global economic impact of COVID-19
*Fitch Ratings expects world economic activity to decline by 1.9% in 2020, with U.S. GDP down by 3.3%, the eurozone down by 4.2% and the U.K. down by 3.9%.
*Fitch Ratings is an international credit rating agency based out of New York City and London. Investors use the company's ratings as a guide as to which investments will not default and subsequently yield a solid return. Fitch bases the ratings on factors, such as what kind of debt a company holds and how sensitive it is to systemic changes like interest rates.
It was announced on March 30, 2020, that President Trump signed the largest-ever U.S. fiscal emergency package, worth $2 trillion (£1.7 trillion), as the country wrestles with the coronavirus pandemic. Source: BBC.
Bruno Le Maire, France's finance minister, announced €45 billion in tax breaks and state payments for the country's economy in addition to €300 billion of loans. In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced €100 billion of loans and guarantees for companies in need of cash. He described it as the "biggest mobilisation of resources in the country's democratic history". Source: Financial Times.
For the world's very poorest countries who cannot borrow such eye-watering sums of money, it means that many of their population will go hungry; and they won't have government aid or subsidies to see them through.
The U.S. economic impact of COVID-19
The Bank of America Global Research said it expects the COVID-19 related recession in the U.S. to be the "deepest recession on record," nearly five times worse than the post-war average. Incidentally, the average post-war recession is about 22 months.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment claims are close to 17 million in just three weeks (as of 4th April 2020) as coronavirus continues to force industries to freeze activities. This figure is likely to increase. Retrieved from Politico.
A conservative estimate puts a coronavirus vaccine between 12 to 18 months away. As such, containment of coronavirus is the near-term strategy.
The U.K. economic climate pre-COVID-19
In Britain, we were just coming out of the austerity era caused by the 2008 recession that was triggered by the crash in the housing market.
Furthermore, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, planned to invest £100 billion over five years on roads, rail and other infrastructure projects across the U.K.; with a particular focus in the North and Midlands. This effort would have taken steps to improve the lives of the traditional Labour voters who 'lent' their votes to the Tories in the 2019 general election.
There seemed to be some optimism that Britain was firmly heading out of austerity and into a new era of economic security, growth and prosperity. All of that is uncertain now. The immediate focus, rightly so, is on the health and safety of the nation at large.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the government's focus to take emergency measures to protect the economy from mass unemployment and economic catastrophe, by announcing on March 17, 2020, an initial £330 billion bailout package to protect U.K. businesses.
Is now the time for brands to change course?
In Britain, the government has indicated that they are prepared to provide further financial relief to businesses should it be required. While this is a welcomed assurance and a lifeline for many businesses, it shouldn't become the predominant way for brands to survive beyond the near term. To do so could be a false sense of security. Why? Because our world has fundamentally changed. Post-COVID-19, consumers may not revert to the same behaviours and priorities that were commonplace before the pandemic.
The longer the epidemic goes on, the greater the likelihood that consumer behaviour will form a lasting change. Therefore, brands must adapt and evolve their value proposition to this new reality.
However, before we fully immerse into the conversation around potential consumer behaviour changes, let's highlight the five key actions that organisations can take now to maintain the health of their brand during the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 corporate response framework
Address the immediate challenges that COVID-19 represents to the workforce, customers and partner
Address near-term cash management challenges and broader resiliency issues
Create a detailed plan to return the business to scale quickly
Re-imagine the "next normal"—what a discontinuous shift looks like, and implications for how the institution should reinvent
Be clear about how the environment in your industry (regulations, the role of government) could evolve
Retrieved from Mckinsey & Company (downloadable resources).
The above is a framework of practical steps to take to regain business baseline operator-ability. The critical thing to note is the ‘Reimagination’ theme. Brands must be asking themselves right now the following questions, or similar:
What will our business and industry look like post-COVID-19 pandemic?
Will our products and services still be as relevant to our existing customers?
What opportunities lie ahead in and outside of our category, and how can we capitalise on them?
What capabilities do we require to exploit those new opportunities?
What is our strategy for achieving our objectives?
Time will be of the essence here. Those who can innovate at pace and launch new values that consumers want or need, and demand will achieve the first-to-market advantage. However, it may be prudent to balance speed with quality to ensure a higher likelihood of success.
The changed consumer behaviour
Where do brands go from here? Consumers have had to adapt and adjust due to social distancing and self-isolation. Groceries, toiletries, energy, and communication have formed the core of our survival essentials. This pandemic has focused people’s minds on what really matters. Perhaps, post-COVID-19, consumers will re-evaluate what they deem to be of importance henceforth. It is at this juncture that brands will need to rethink their advertising and marketing strategy and, in some instances, their entire value proposition, business and operating models.
Consumer behaviour insight
Google used its vast data from GPS mobile tracking and Google Maps to show how people's movement has changed since the coronavirus outbreak and the impact of the government's message of self-isolation and social distancing.
During the period between 16 February and 29 March 2020, visits by people in the UK to retail and recreation locations, such as restaurants, shopping centres and galleries dropped by 85%.
Trips to outdoor spaces such as parks and beaches fell 52%
The data also revealed that people were travelling to transit stations 75% less often, and journeys to workplaces dropped 55%
The only area of movement that increased was in residential parts - by 15%
Retrieved from Sky News.
Grocery and online shopping
We have seen the increased demand for home delivery for groceries. The demand has outstripped supply to such an extent that the largest U.K. supermarkets have prioritised the elderly over younger customers. This trend is likely to stick around for some time, maybe even indefinitely. Why risk a trip to the supermarket where the chance of catching a virus (innocuous or otherwise) is high when your groceries can be delivered to your home safely?
Amazon, America's biggest e-commerce marketplace, with a turnover of $280 billion in 2019, has seen a massive increase in demand for household goods, groceries and medical supplies like hand sanitiser and face masks.
However, for many vendors, Amazon is their only point of contact with customers. But now Amazon is turning away shipments of "non-essentials" to FBA (Fulfilled By Amazon) warehouses, to support the smooth flow of essentials. This decision has affected approximately 53% of Amazon sellers, preventing them from shipping products to their customers. For those in the supply chain and retail e-commerce businesses, this provides a disruption crack in the seemingly impenetrable armour of Mr Bezos.
For further reading, Big Think.
We have seen the steady growth of Zoom video communication this year. Since going public a year ago on April 22, at $65 a share, Zoom now trades at $159.56 as of March 23, 2020 - up 145%. The stock is up more than 130% at a time when the broader markets are down more than 30% from their peak. There is a strong correlation between the reality of self-isolation and quarantine and the strong performance by Zoom.
Should Zoom and other video communication service providers strengthen the security and privacy around their products, and develop the right marketing strategy to keep consumers using their products and services, they will come out of the other side of the pandemic a stronger business because of the changed consumer behaviour.
Working from home
Many people have fantasised about permanently working from home and the flexibility that it affords, especially for parents who have to do school runs. However, under the COVID-19 pandemic, it has meant that parents are having to home school their children while also juggling the demands of full-time employment.
For some parents, it has proved highly stressful and near-impossible under the pandemic. However, the situation will be much more favourable post-COVID-19. Employers may be much more likely to further support and even advocate it once the potential benefits have been comprehensively analysed for not having a permanent office location.
There will be a resurgence of workspace solutions like WeWork. Businesses will use future office spaces for important client meetings and presentations, team workshops and company events; as well as for the regular work activities, as required.
On the other side of COVID-19 will be new opportunities and new values that consumers will be open to. Some of which, including the points already discussed, will also be in the areas of specialist online education programmes for children, sophisticated healthcare mobile apps and the resurgence of fitness gamification apps. From a B2B point of view, vital opportunities will reside in the supply chain sector.
Corporate strategy to COVID-19
The following ten business strategic responses will help to ensure businesses survive from unpredictable and unforeseen adverse future events; and to enable growth in the evolving consumer landscape:
The acceleration of digital transformation programmes for traditional enterprises
Speed to market for new products and services using lean innovation and agile practices
The move into a paperless state, particularly for financial systems and outputs (i.e. invoices and financial statements)
The widespread adoption of big data and predictive analytics to inform decisions in critical and rapidly changing environments
The use of big data analytics to manage and predict inventory; and the optimisation of the supply chain (adding resilience to the ‘just-in-time’ - JIT - inventory system to prevent essential products shortage during times of consumer bulk and panic buying)
Adopt an agile workforce model to swiftly adapt to the changing needs of customers and the marketplace. This requires embracing change at an organisational level and building the capabilities and expertise to successfully do so
Enable flexible working, supported with collaborative tools and technologies and scalable cloud infrastructure, for anywhere, anytime operation
Adopt flexible working hours beyond the traditional 9 to 5, Monday to Friday
The diversification of portfolio for specialist businesses to ensure income versatility in times of adversity
Develop the next generation visionary leadership pipeline with a relentless focus on sustainability, customer experience, data, technology, transparency and fairness. This new breed of leaders will have a high level of integrity, emotional intelligence and leadership skills; and can steer the organisation to enduring success.
Start to think about how to evolve your business in the context of a changing world and changed consumer behaviour.