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The Impact on COVID and Marketing: Changes in Communication and Consumer Behavior

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed marketing. It has changed how many businesses operate. It has changed how consumers function in the marketplace. It has changed almost everything. 

The pandemic was, in essence, a global crisis that followed many patterns that marketing specialists use when we plan for any crisis: threat avoidance, crisis management, and organizational learning. First, we tried to avoid the overall threat through various coping strategies: shutdowns, denial or avoidance of the problem, eventual adaptation (cleaning strategies, mask-wearing, social distancing, etc.). 

Then it came to management – businesses had to run, people had to be paid, the market had to continue, so communication and management strategies came into play. Things like take-out, online ordering, scheduled shopping, and more became the norm in how we function. 

Then came organizational learning. Businesses had to learn to resolve issues for a long-term effect. Learning how to communicate in a crisis (defining or redefining hours, the supply chain, inventory, centralizing communications, and more) is now a part of life for many businesses. Successful businesses built organizational patterns for defining messages from the CEO, updating websites, sending emails, describing enhanced cleaning procedures, waiving fees, providing empathy, and matching messaging with the overall tone of the crisis. 

But beyond the changes to communication, how customers changed in a post-COVID environment has to inform how marketers reach them. There are three crucial pillars that customers are actively seeking now: gratification, agency, and stability. If marketers can’t provide those things, they will not be successful. So, let’s dive a little deeper into what those three things are and what they mean for marketers now. 

A Consumer’s Need for Gratification 

The idea of gratification is simple – whether it’s instant gratification or something that takes more time, quite simply, consumers want what they want, when they want it. In quarantine, people wanted things to do so they sought out bread-making, foamed coffees, and Zoom book clubs. Now, as quarantines end and things open up, people are actively seeking out all the things they’ve missed. I know of at least one local restaurant that’s putting up numbers in 2021 that are outpacing how they performed pre-COVID, in 2019. People miss going out, shopping in a store, eating in a restaurant, and hugging their friends! This creates an economic inevitability for hedonism. 

This new normal can create two distinct scenarios. 

  1. People start deciding between two alternatives: say, their Verizon bill or their credit card bill. 
  2. It begins a period of rampant consumerism. 

In the vein of gratification, we also see an increase in the purchase of “guilty pleasures”, affordable things that make us feel good without bankrupting us. Think about really delicious, premium ice cream or organic, pasture-raised eggs from chickens with names and backstories. 

A Consumer’s Need for Agency

In this case, agency does not refer to a marketing agency, it refers to the need to take ownership of your destiny, to feel in control of your outcomes. In a pandemic, you don’t have control over much at all. One negative way people took agency was the widespread panic buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. But, a positive way involved an increase in hygiene: face masks, hand sanitizer, touchless or self-checkout environments, and more kept things like flu season numbers down, and there was an increase in awareness on hand-washing and overall hygienic practices. 

We’ve also seen the development of technologies that enable inventory awareness so that consumers have a better sense of what they have at home. Smart refrigerators monitor the levels of supplies, personal dashboards and things like chore apps keep track of financial and social health. Businesses that have adapted to how consumers want this sense of agency, like healthcare companies that use telemedicine, hygiene-based companies, organizational companies (who doesn’t love The Home Edit?!), contactless shopping or curbside pickup, and more, are understanding how agency works and how it impacts a business. 

A Consumer’s Need for Stability

2020 was not a year I’d define as stable. As such, marketing had a return to a focus on things that were familiar. Comfort foods like Chef Boyardee, macaroni and cheese, and things people grew up with saw spikes in purchasing. There was also a greater focus on nostalgia in advertising – a return to characters that have been around for years. Many businesses also re-ran commercials that haven’t aired in ages, in some ways as cost savings, but in others to refocus on the comfortable, nostalgic elements. 

With the consumer’s need for stability, we also see this impact purchasing with specific decisions. For example, we often see luxury goods, such as designer handbags, increase in popularity in times of crisis. The thinking is that “an investment piece” that will last forever becomes better than fast fashion. Fewer, higher-quality items are where the interest lies. We also see in times of unpredictability, that consumers focus on companies they can trust. Brand loyalty and trust become more important than ever. Another important value is sustainability – whether companies are giving back, whether they’re using sustainable models, whether they’re treating employees fairly, safely, and paying them a living wage. 

This realignment of values has shifted how marketers work in times of crisis and created an increase in transparency and meaningful experiences. If you have questions about how your business has responded to COVID-19, the post-pandemic world, or how you can leverage some of the changes in the purchasing process as a result of the pandemic, let our team know, and we can help you strategize the best marketing approaches for your business and your industry. 

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