There's no doubt, COVID-19 will have an enduring impact on society long after lockdown is over. Sure, we have seen other major global events in the 21st century such as September 11 (2001), the Iraq invasion (2003), the global financial crisis (2008) and the Arab spring (2010). But they've all had regional epicenters, whereas the current pandemic is a truly collective experience, felt in equal measure all around the world, from New York to Tehran. In truth, we have no real comparison point in modern history.
For the first time in a long time - no one knows what the future holds, not even the experts. Fortunately, history and social psychology offer a glimpse into how the pandemic could change consumers' attitudes, behaviors and spending habits. Naturally, these changes will have a disproportionate impact on young people who are experiencing the pandemic unfold during their formative years. From a cultural perspective, our values vary according to two contrasting dimensions: Individualism vs. Collectivism. Individualism focuses on personal freedom and individual achievement.
Collectivism emphasizes group goals and the importance of the community. Generally speaking, people in the West (Western Europe and North America) tend to be more individualistic, and people in the East (Asia and Africa) tend to be more collectivist. However, moments of crisis often pave the way for social solidarity. The pandemic has afforded western societies a chance to unite, collaborate and serve. Witnessing the power of collective action can change the way individuals relate to others, resulting in an increased sense of community.
This cultural shift from "I" to "we" could have a permanent effect on consumer behavior. Research indicates people from individualist cultures prefer buying products and services associated with being successful and autonomous. But if society becomes more community-focused, then so will our shopping habits. In other words, buyer motivation will shift from personal gain towards products, services and experiences that can be shared and enjoyed with others. The very act of consumption will no longer be synonymous with social status, but rather social harmony.
In short, consumers will become more receptive to brands that demonstrate prosaically behavior. And so, all future brand activity will need to benefit society, and not only the individual. On an individual level, the pandemic is likely to cause two opposing social behaviors. For a large section of the population, COVID-19 provides an ideal opportunity to re-evaluate their current lifestyle choices, make adjustments and reset their lives. You only have to take a look at the number of people who have used their newfound time to exercise, start a new skill or make a career transition. For instance, sales of Peloton bikes have jumped nearly 66% and LinkedIn has reported a 3x increase in time spent learning.
Although it feels like we're going to change the way we live forever. Things are never that simple. If anything, we know that human beings are not very good at sticking to new habits. In the U.S., 44% of adults make a New Year's resolution - and the most popular is going to the gym. But we also know 80% will quit within five months. Even if there won't be a "normal" to go back to - once lockdown is over - levels of adaptability and will vary among different groups.
The pandemic is likely to produce two distinctive behavioral archetypes: people who have embraced a new lifestyle and those who have largely remained unchanged. The emergence of the new behavioral group is going to have a transformative impact on the future of brands. Inevitably, there will be winners and losers. Some brands will need to figure out how to win back old customers with new mindsets. Whereas, other brands will use the opportunity to steal market share by appealing to consumers newly formed lifestyles. Regardless, marketers should have these two distinct archetypes in mind when updating their customer segments.
The writer is poet, columnist and banking professional.
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