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consumers in china, france, the us and Mexico told us these THREE things about covid

By Ken Muench

Like every other marketer and strategist on planet earth, our attention has been momentarily turned to COVID-19. And since we can’t personally do a damn thing to stop it (other than stay indoors and convince others to do the same), we decided to try to study the most likely effects it’ll have on our society in the next few years. We figured that if nothing else, it would keep us too busy to freak out. Turns out, what we found was more than we bargained for.

We did primary qual and quant in Wuhan, Shanghai, Paris, the US, and Mexico, speaking to about 2,500 consumers in total. We also spoke to a couple of consumer psychologists at some top universities, a sociologist that focuses on pandemics, a psychologist that specializes in the aftershocks of trauma and a behavioral economist that teaches about how social moods affect decision making during economic recessions. It was like going back to school (except this time we were actually listening because it felt like our life depended on it!)

We learned a pile of actionable stuff to make our businesses stronger today and in the future. But a few big, broad strategic things also stood out above all else. And for the sake of debate, we figured we’d share them here.

1- Some behaviors will be radically and permanently changed. Humans, it turns out, are quite lazy and habit driven. And unless something forces them to change their ways, they’ll continue doing what they’ve always done, and only slowly migrate their behaviors. But along came COVID and forced everyone into their homes–disrupting nearly every facet of our lives. Suddenly, cooking almost every meal, ordering stuff for delivery and wearing pajama bottoms to Zoom meetings became the absolute norms for many of us. And here’s the kicker: some of those behaviors will remain for a long, long time, while others will vanish as soon as the fear of this wretched virus starts dissipating. But how can you tell the difference? After all, we do have to plan for our businesses post-crisis.

Here’s a nifty little shortcut to answer that question: in the long run, your consumer will do whichever behavior is easier. End of story. So, cooking from home? Gone, as soon as humanly possible! (yes, we’ve heard it too, COVID has forced a generation to learn to cook and they’ll do it forever. Fat chance, we say. Life will get busy and shortcuts will start feeling like much smarter uses of our time than making yet another sourdough starter). Sure, maybe once a month we’ll reminisce and bake a cake, but daily cooking is not here to stay if we can afford the alternative. Plus, who knew it was so freaking hard to make delicious food on a daily basis?!

On the other hand, e-commerce, grocery delivery, mobile ordering, digital payments (all intrinsically easier than their analog counterparts) are behaviors that are here to stay. There is little chance we’ll suddenly decide to do it the hard way again. Not once we’ve learned how to use all these apps and easy payment systems. The real question though, is, what happens to pajama zoom meetings? (we vote for them to stay)

Oh, and by the way, what about all those cleanliness habits: masks, lysoling everything, compulsive hand-washing, and social distancing? While the virus is a threat, they’ll remain. But once it’s been defeated? Well, which behavior is easier? Fastidious cleanliness and wiping down your groceries before putting them away? What a pain! So no, little by little we’ll revert to how we were before. Just think of what happened to all the victory gardens, thriftiness, pickling, and recycling of everything after WWII: gone, and with a vengeance! (The Chinese consumers we spoke to in Wuhan were already talking about “Revenge Spending,” as soon as the stay at home order would be lifted)

Another dynamic we saw in every market seems to be a 180 from where we were before:

2- Bigger IS better! For the last ten years we’ve been talking to Millennials and Gen Z’ers who despised big brands and companies. The local butcher was the apple of their eye! And the same goes for farmer’s markets and local clothiers. But suddenly, big brands are en vogue again. Just take a look at any industry’s sales figures: the smaller brands are falling by the wayside. Grocery stores in the US are even reportedly taking shelf-space away from smaller, “hip” brands to allocate more space to old faves from the big companies. Why is that?

We spoke to one consumer psychologist who explained that as people, we judge other people (and brands) using two yardsticks: Warmth and Competence. Warmth is how kind you feel they are. How well-intentioned and relatable. And Competence is how smart or accurate or good at their jobs you think they are. Usually, when times are good, warmth rules the day. People love the farmers at the farmer’s market more than they do the executives at the packaged food company. But when a crisis hits, competence is all that matters. How clean is it? How professionally packaged? How quick is the delivery? All these once-table stakes things, suddenly matter more than ever. And if nothing else, big brands are quite competent.

Though we also think we’re reaching back into our youth. Old, standard brands and foods give us comfort in a time of need. And by definition, many of those old-school brands come from the bigger companies.

Regardless of the reason, we’re going to have to celebrate the little-guy again. The lifeblood of our neighborhoods is the small business, and it looks like they have a rough road ahead.

3- COVID isn’t the lasting crisis. What comes afterward is. Nearly every consumer we spoke to was rightfully fearful of the virus. Some had already caught it and recovered, others had lost friends or family members. But all were concerned and deeply saddened by the massive loss of human life. Speak to anyone long enough though, and the conversation inevitably turns to their jobs, their family members’ jobs, their shops, and small businesses…their livelihoods. Most were terrified of what was to come.

By nearly any account, we’re headed for rough economic seas. Massive unemployment, possible deflation followed by possible inflation, and a lack of consumer confidence spell serious trouble. Our bet is that when we look back on the next 5 years, we may realize that most of our efforts as marketers were not ones meant to directly combat the virus (encouraging social distancing, creating safe delivery alternatives, etc), but the ones we’re going to have to figure to deal with the upcoming recession/depression.

I will end this on a positive note though. As we spoke to consumers in Wuhan, we asked them about the overwhelming fear they must be enduring 9 weeks into the shutdown. One after the other, they shook their heads. They weren’t afraid. Not anymore, anyway. The real problem in their daily life was boredom. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a little boredom over fear right about now.

Next week we’ll talk a bit about what we’re seeing on the social justice front. How consumers are starting to show real concern for fair jobs and the wellbeing of others. In the meantime, stay safe and we’d love to hear your feedback!

(Keep in mind that all the views expressed in this post and on this site are personal views. They don’t represent the views of Yum! or any other person or organization except the authors themselves.)

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