How COVID has changed consumers

Consumers have been indelibly changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but have coped with it in a variety of ways.

There’s no doubt that consumer behaviors have changed in ways that could not have been imagined before the pandemic. As marketers, we need to understand the emotional and functional needs of our audience so we can develop an appropriate strategy in response.

The impact of the pandemic continues to evolve, and consumers are responding with an ever-shifting blend of caution and hope. We’re already seeing how many people are making fundamental changes to their lifestyles as a result of the pandemic, presenting an opportunity for us to create new ways for our brands to show up and earn the consumer’s attention.

The trend-watching company WGSN recently released a study that looked at the impact of COVID-19 on consumers, predicting what we will see in 2023 and beyond. Their report also highlighted four key trends.

A warped sense of time: The pandemic has given most people a warped sense of time. The events that normally define and create boundaries around our weeks, months and years disappeared in 2020, and most people experienced a social jet lag, a disconnect between our internal biological time and the social time of the outside world.

This time warp helped explain some of the yearnings that many displayed, a need for reminders of simpler times. Consumers watched reruns of old TV shows, there was a resurgence in the retro “Mario Kart” game, and a nostalgic desire for things like the comfort foods of our childhood.

Numbness: Many people developed a coping mechanism that was driven by fear and apprehension about what might come next during the global public health emergency. The sense of the pending doom of the unknown was prevalent during much of 2020 and has left its mark.

This numbness is also driving a sense of compassion fatigue – people have come to realize that they can’t solve everything for everyone and are having to choose where to direct their energies.

We’re seeing this in the increase of ad blocking, disconnecting from social media, or “unfollowing” people on Facebook and other social channels, as individuals look for more curated content and to focus on what really matters to them.

Hope: Humans are, at the end of the day, inherently hopeful. We have an infallible belief that things will work out. And despite the numbness we all experienced, there is hope. We see glimmers of it as people emerge from isolation and work hard to get back to the elements of life that meant the most to them pre-pandemic.

This returning optimism is important to people of all generations but is especially critical to the members of Generation Z, because of how deeply their lives were affected and how they literally watched their futures change in an instant when the pandemic struck.

Cautious motivation: This is a trend we need to be particularly mindful of, because if we get it wrong, our messages could fall very badly.

People are taking tentative steps forward into what they’re hoping will quickly become a more normal world, but everyone is going at a different pace. Messaging in this moment can’t be that everything’s wonderful because some aren’t there yet. But we can begin to project a return to the people and experiences we love.

As you begin to think about these trends, remember that it’s expected that they’ll be drivers well into 2023 and beyond. The last 18 months have taken their toll on everyone. The impact is just beginning to show up in how consumers are moving back into the marketplace. If we can demonstrate our understanding now, we’ll earn their trust for years to come.

This was originally published in the Des Moines Business Record, as one of Drew’s weekly columns.

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