Businesses of every size have struggled. Their ability to safely protect their workers while also providing the flexibility of services they once offered has proven to be difficult to maintain without the steady flow of traffic and communication that was once possible. With a new generation being raised in a time of uncertainty, unrest, and isolation, what can we predict about their changes in preference, taste, and motivations in a new, virus-ravaged marketplace? Furthermore, how will the generations who experienced life before lockdown change, distorting the essence of retail selling and branding as a whole? What kind of consumer will emerge in this unexplored frontier?
We can only guess that the new young buyer will be greatly affected by the environment in which they were introduced to the market. Increased screen time and time at home will create a generation that places an even larger emphasis on social media presence and at-home products and services, as well as a business’s attention to self-reliance and its self-education towards customers. These mask-wearing, Zoom-calling, cautious new consumers will grow increasingly okay with the scattered nature of the world and seek an understanding of the cluttered life they are now forced to live, along with empathy towards the general nature of the pandemic and the losses it has caused. Transparency within companies and among each other will be increasingly important, as trust in their safety while participating in the market will be almost certainly a prerequisite. These characteristics will culminate in the largest shift in consumer taste and engagement that the market has seen in a long time, and it will likely unseat some brands and catapult others to the top of the heap — in a marketplace shakeup that will ultimately benefit both buyers and sellers.
With all of that as a backdrop, it’s time for some predictions. Here are the eight greatest changes Cobalt expects to see in the post-COVID-19 -marketing era:
8. Trust and Authenticity
Ever since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been no shortage of the phrase “uncertain times.” And while we may be tired of hearing it at the beginning of every ad, news report, and radio broadcast, it is an accurate descriptor. The new consumer will have a cautious and unsure attitude looming over every move they make, socially or economically. Developed and enforced under suspicion that all those around them could have a deadly virus trapped beneath their masks, new consumers will expect any public store to be trustworthy and uphold standards of safety. This prediction is informed by current research. According to data collected by Salesforce, for businesses that aim to have more physical traffic, health-safety and customer empathy seem to be the traits most pandemic-adapted shoppers are seeking. No matter the generation, many surveyed shoppers required that the places they frequent enforce PPE protection measures for customers and workers. They also demanded social distancing measures. Consumers want to see their favorite stores and businesses upholding their end of the bargain: being true to the customer and providing evidence of their advertised empathy.
7. Online Stores Grow, but Which Ones?
It is likely no surprise to anyone that the pro-isolation nature of the COVID pandemic will be the greatest boon to online retail and all forms of e-commerce. However, the online giants of today may not prevail into the online marketing world of tomorrow. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen the large rise of an already growing range of online services, such as GrubHub and DoorDash. Consumers have been using these services for a while, as a way of achieving the ease of delivery, but now they are almost a necessity in avoiding any public exposure. Early indicators suggest that brands like GrubHub and DoorDash will have a big 2020. Spending on meal delivery services was up 70 percent year-over-year in the last week of March. And it’s not just the number of orders — it’s also the size of the orders. In the week ended March 30, the average order size was up 24 percent from a year ago.
Technologies that enable work from home will also emerge as power brands. Services like Zoom have already proven to be major players in the pandemic with an explosion of new users since March, though they also encountered major security problems, resulting in a downturn in popularity. Slack, another virtual conference service, has been another big winner, growing from one million connected users in late 2015 to an astounding 12.5 million in March of 2020.
This is not to say all online retailers will do well. Ride-sharing services, like Uber and Lyft will, cease to function effectively for a long while, as most consumers will be reluctant to be in close spaces with unidentified drivers. According to reports, the number of Uber rides dropped 80 percent last at the height of the lockdowns in the US and Canada, leading the company to cut 3,000 jobs and consolidate 40 offices. AirBnB is suffering a similar fate as tourism declines and people grow wary of germs left behind by unknowable guests. This has led to pundits announcing that AirBnB, a disrupter of the hotel industry, is now being disrupted itself.
Finally, online dating services, such as Tinder, Match, Bumble and OKCupid, present an interesting case study. Many of these services have become very popular during the pandemic, but instead of leading to face-to-face dates, they are culminating in virtual dates. Since March, OKCupid has seen a 700 percent increase in the number of its users going on virtual dates. In the post-COVID future, not only will people turn more readily to online dating services, they will also stay online for longer, as many kisses and hugs will be considered too risky. This will lead to a different kind of relationship-building and perhaps even to virtual marriages, though those may be harder to consummate (until online sperm delivery services emerge).
Overall, we should expect the services involving little contact and little travel to expand and those requiring touch and interaction to decline. As e-commerce expands to become the largest form of retail, we will see the death of some brick-and-mortar mainstays (say sayonara to the indoor mall) and a few traditional marketing interfaces, which leads us to the next item on the list.
6. Death of a Sales-mode
If retail chains are at risk of going extinct, it follows that most forms of physical point-of-sale (POS) marketing are also in jeopardy. Some experts predict that brick-and-mortar retail sales will fall by 14 percent to $4.184 trillion in 2020 and won’t rebound completely for five years. As cash registers grow increasingly quiet, the enticing tchotchkes and impulse-based products that defined POS for more than 50 years will collect more dust than attention.
At the same time, point-of-sale marketing will continue to flourish on online storefronts. When a customer finishes adding items to their cart and clicks the checkout button, deals and advertisements will clutter the screen. Amazon already utilizes this with their heavy focus on Amazon Prime and its benefits as you place your orders, encouraging customers to spend a couple more bucks a month for an earlier arrival time.
5. The End of the Tradeshow
In late February 2020, senior leaders at Biogen gathered for the company’s annual strategy meeting. Little did they know the coronavirus already dogging Asia and Europe was circulating among them. One of the pandemic’s first superspreading events had begun. And this was just a few people. If a small leadership meeting could cause an outbreak, what could a large-scale conference, drawing thousands of attendees, do to ignite the spread of the virus? Trade shows rely heavily on the ability to interact with possible customers or distributors: the handshakes, the networking sessions, the exchange of giveaways and the kiosks and interactive touchscreens attracting an almost infinite number of fingerprints. All of these activities make infectious disease experts shudder.
By the time the news of the Biogen outbreak was hitting the airwaves, companies across the U.S. were canceling their 2020 trade show plans. At first, it was just the spring shows, but it didn’t take long for all spring, summer and fall conferences to fall off marketing calendars or retreat to a virtual format. According to survey data from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, 73 percent of exhibitions had been canceled altogether as of June 2020.
Of course, the pandemic has not completely stopped trade shows from occurring. Virtual events are now increasingly plausible vehicles for marketing to a generation raised in isolation, though they lose the face-to-face qualities that helped to differentiate trade shows from other marketing channels. Online trade shows can also be more confusing to navigate, which can be frustrating for exhibitors and their customers.
4. It’s All in the SEO, Baby
Now that retailers have moved predominantly online, we can expect to see an even larger utilization of search engine optimization (SEO) and greater emphasis on visitors’ online experience. Without physical advertising and exhibition halls, the only available real estate for businesses to occupy is on Google search pages. SEO will have to become increasingly more competitive as businesses try to fill in the top three search results for their particular products.
Retailers will have to make websites that deliver the most enjoyable experience possible to screen-weary visitors, encouraging faster loading times and high-impact graphics that direct, inform and engage. Websites developed and updated in the time of pandemic will show more emphasis on the journey that a customer takes on the way to checkout and not singularly on the look of the website itself. A focus on usability principles and design simplicity will encourage not only younger generations to initiate transactions, but also make it possible for the older customers to have a better experience as well. These SEO-oriented, visitor-friendly websites will find increasingly more efficient ways to rank high in search results for anyone looking for one of their keywords and will be engaged in a constant tug-of-war with other likeminded companies.
A positive outcome of this trend will be better, friendlier, faster websites. Connections will be faster and the experiences for customers will be altogether more pleasurable.
3. At-Home Brands
In 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 82 percent of employed persons did some or all of their work at their workplace, spending 7.9 hours in the office. Only 24 percent of employed persons did some or all of their work at home and only put in a paltry 3.3 hours per day. Thanks to COVID, these numbers have been turned on their head. Except for essential employees, all working-age adults are now working from home and, without commutes sandwiching their productive day, are likely spending far more time on the clock. This influx of people retreating into their homes and changing their day-to-day lives in order to help flatten the curve and lower risks of infection has accelerated the use of at-home brands and products (think Wayfair, HelloFresh, Peloton, Casper, Instacart, Brooklinen, Carvana). Parents are now watching over rowdy children while working, and the house is constantly occupied, resulting in the need for more products and services that make living and working at home more efficient and comfortable.
After the pandemic, many of these employed people will never return to a conventional office space. Companies like Twitter have already announced that all workers will work remotely even after stay-at-home orders expire. That’s good news for the at-home brand market, which should remain strong long after the pandemic is over.
2. Punctuated Equilibrium over Gradualism
It’s terminology borrowed from biology, but it applies here. Gradualism refers to evolution that occurs slowly, languidly, causing gradual changes to organisms over long periods of times. Punctuated equilibrium refers to rapid bursts of evolutionary change followed by calmer periods with less change.
All companies were blindsided by the coronavirus pandemic that overtook the world rapidly and without forewarning. Some companies, however, responded with great agility, while others, accustomed to 10-year strategic planning cycles, couldn’t adapt as quickly. Read this story of Eden Park Illumination Inc. (paywall) If you want to be inspired by a company that was able to turn on a dime.
Of course, no one could have expected the pandemic or its disastrous effects, but it did shed light on the fading benefits of gradual brand evolution. Businesses that cannot react quickly to a changing marketplace or to the changing tastes of its consumers will likely be left behind. Companies that can react to the COVID crisis by overhauling their product portfolio, manufacturing lines and sales and marketing operations will fare better — and will revitalize the original meaning of innovation.
1. Permanence in the People
Younger generations also face the largest crisis. The beginning of their adult lives has been stained by a pandemic that has prevented them from participating in a market they once thought available to all. This stilted and awkward introduction to the world of global commerce will almost assuredly result in grand changes in how the younger generations participate in the marketplace and a shift in access points they use to do so. It’s convenient to think that younger consumers will forget the habits they developed in the throes of changes and will return to the branding and marketing paradigms of their parents, but this is just wishful thinking.
The habits they develop now will not be forgotten quickly, nor will they be trained out easily. Markets once considered prosperous and open will likely remain under a cloud of suspicion — and will be perceived as dangerous or less enticing — just because young people were coming of age as consumers during the COVID crisis. The risk of permanence, in the younger generations especially, is a challenge that all brands will have to begin dealing with during and following the crisis. Opinions made during the pandemic may be embraced for years, even without the virus looming over them.
Marketing to a Generation Raised in Isolation: Change Is the Only Constant
There you have it — eight predictions about marketing to a generation raised in isolation, informed by common sense, a little research and experience with our own clients. Even if a few of our entries are debatable, one thing is clear: doing business and building brands will never be the same. But all of the upheaval and rapid change we’ve experienced does not mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. Generalizations about marketing and branding we’ve leveraged for years will, for the most part, remain true and — as long as companies remember to react quickly and embrace true innovation.
Ultimately, this time of change will result in a better marketplace with healthy competition that opens up a number of possibilities for entrepreneurs, young and old, introduces transformative products, new and familiar, and encourages an era of emotion-driven and journey-oriented marketing with an emphasis on the customers themselves.