Adjusting to New Norms: Consumers and Market Research Now

From family members to research houses to end clients, the entire world has been impacted by the pandemic and working to understand how to adjust and progress forward. The phrase “new normal” has latched onto numerous conversations since the start of COVID-19. Change has inevitably caused a shift in priorities and expectations, leaving companies questioning how to get to the next phase. Relative importance from the start of 2020 to now, it is easy to pick out aspects of life which are being prioritized. Haircuts are put on hold, while Wi-Fi connections are of the upmost importance. By reviewing trends in consumer perceptions regularly, assessing what ideals remain consistent, valued or abandoned is possible. During this unprecedented time with lots of uncertainty, research solutions can provide stable consumer information to help build strong strategies for finding a way forward to meet future needs and habits.  

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Amidst the overwhelming chaos of the COVID-19 news and the new situations we find ourselves in, it may be comforting to know that fundamental challenges can be met with creative solutions. Social distancing inspired virtual cocktail hours, online classes and videogame hangouts. Individuals change their behaviors because it is the only option and can make an impact on a large scale. Items of critical needs, like protective face shields for medical personnel, are being crafted by 3D printers. Scarcity in equipment, products or services encourages consumers to think outside the box and explore alternative options.

Food is one of the most basic necessities. To address the concerns regarding public places and widespread shortages, consumers are turning to grocery delivery, curbside pickups and online shopping. Each of these methods for food shopping is unique, from the amount of interaction with the store itself to the amount of information. The experience of shopping in a physical store compared to online is very different. Rather than browsing aisles and seeing attractive packages, consumers are scrolling through browsers or apps on their phone seeing vastly different information and imagery. The format of a website or app highlights different features of the product as opposed to being in-person and on a shelf. These differences in format (in-store vs online) will elicit different consumer perceptions and ultimately influence purchase behaviors. For example, in-store package design and shelf location may drive purchase behaviors, while online emphasis on pricing per ounce may be more influential.

Figure 1: An example of in-store (left) vs online shopping (right) via an app.

The process of online grocery shopping may involve a bit of a learning curve for people who typically shop in-store. However, companies are working hard to ensure apps are simple to entice consumers to continue shopping without having to leave their couch. And these new learned behaviors (and future habits) may even be able to translate into becoming a part of the consumers’ behavior when they return to stores, such as incorporating apps in planning their shopping lists.

The Norm is Dead; Long Live the Norm

When one king passes away, the order of succession is enacted, and the next king is crowned to replace him. Similarly, if a past norm is no longer relevant, another norm (or a stronger metric) will follow in its place. Yet, norms may not provide the most accurate factors for assessing current environments, especially if drastic changes are occurring.

HCD has used norms in the past, as this is the client expectation in media and communications research. However, we have often seen and pointed out problems we have seen in using norms to make business decisions. For example, following the great recession experienced in 2008, HCD collected data via survey ranking Super Bowl ads based on performance against normative scores. Criteria for the normative scores was based on historical data defining what score an ad would need to meet to be successful. Due to our concerns around a set historical normative score, we relied on floating norms, reassessing the score needed to be successful for each year. What you can see in the graph below is that this score decreased each year following the recession. Meaning a successful ad in 2010 would not have been considered successful in 2008. This should be a red flag for anyone that relies on historical norms to make their business decisions. Further, you can see that the top 5 ads in the years following the recession would not have been successful. This clearly demonstrates the dangers of relying on historical norms for making business decisions.

Figure 2: (Top) Demonstrates the normative scores for the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Super Bowl advertisements. (Bottom) Breaks down and ranks the scores for the top 5 performing Super Bowl ads for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010.  

Extraordinary times reveal the importance of being flexible to new perspectives. The pandemic is an opportunity to try a new approach that may yield better solutions. Keep a fresh perspective and an open mind. Long live the king, but maybe it’s time to put the queen in charge.

Correctly Capturing the Current (and Continuing) Changes

Adjusting to COVID-19 social distancing and stay-at-home mandates requires our behavior to change and for people to learn new ways to shop. Brand loyalty is also disrupted due to scarcity of products allowing for alternative brands and products to be showcased. If toilet paper availability is low, consumers have the option to use wipes or tissues. Additionally, the way companies react to the pandemic may also influence a consumer’s allegiance to a brand. Consumers may be more enticed to support a company donating supplies compared to a company laying off numerous employees. Seeing how a company responds during a crisis may attract or deter a consumer, especially because the circumstances are very emotional. Understanding the consumer mentality helps companies develop messaging, concepts or products that satisfy essential concerns and make better predictions of market success. Habits are a cycle of cues, routines and rewards shaping our behaviors and lifestyles. When the habit cycle is disrupted by a crisis, it presents an opportunity for brands and products to make new impressions that supersede the previous expectation. The massive routine changes occurring right now are forcing consumers to explore new options. To meet the consumers’ ideal need, habit, and lifestyle, it is crucial to understand how the current environment is shifting feelings, values and priorities.  

Figure 3: An example of a Brand Tracking wave to understand the process of HCD’s MaxImplicit when applied to Brand Tracking.   

Reviewing how disruptions change perceptions or habits over time is useful for companies to understand when trying to connect with consumers. One way for companies to monitor behavioral trends involves the concept of brand tracking. It calls for systematic evaluations of the performance of particular stimuli. The item or concept tracked can range from studying the company, an existing product, an ad campaign or the launch of an entirely new product. Anthropologically gathering information around the language surrounding certain brands or products can give a strong foundation for being closer to consumers to understand unmet or satisfied needs. HCD’s MaxImplicit analyzes the associations of consumer needs to evaluate the health of a company against competitors and determine areas of potential innovation. Learning the way consumers react to hardship can help companies position themselves to better align with the consumers’ interests. Remaining malleable during a time of change enables a company to better accommodate consumers by discovering and satisfying new ideals. Revisiting the stimuli frequently can give insight into whether product expectation waivers temporarily or permanently, helping to determine how to structure campaigns, products and communications.

Brand tracking is also useful in evaluating the recovery period. As life settles back into a routine, some habits developed during the period of disruption will remain while some original behaviors will return. Physical environments may trigger habits connected to certain places, such as hitting the gym after work. Yet, life will not be the same because everyone has been impacted by the extreme influence of COVID-19. The skills gained during the pandemic may overpower original habits because it allows for a more optimal experience. Virtual movie nights with extended family or grocery shopping with an app may integrate into the lifestyle developed by past experiences, including COVID-19.

Many companies are leveraging COVID-19 behavior into a use case to move with consumers into the new normal. Messaging changes how companies connect with consumers. State Farm’s New Normal commercial is an ode to consumers for adjusting to an ever-changing world with State Farm remaining reliable. Other companies are reframing messaging to address new values, like cleaning. WeatherTech, an automotive protection product company, released a campaign to addresses the importance of disinfecting products. The ad highlights how surfaces are easy to wipe and machine washable. Acknowledging the priorities of the current and future environment, research houses and end-clients promote growth via communications, design and concepts to extend far beyond the shelter-in-place timeline.

Video: WeatherTech COVID-19: Disinfectants Ad Commercial aired in 2020.

Companies and consumers are products of past experiences; however, as situations unfold, we are dependent on our growth from the past to improve. While individuals are given the opportunity to shift their habit loop during disruptive moments, it also empowers them to either dissociate or integrate brands or companies into the new patterns. Listening to consumer concerns and catering the product experience to the new priorities promotes a stronger and valued connection. Remaining prevalent through outreach and market tracking acknowledges the flux in interest during unprecedented times. By delivering on the identified needs, brands match consumer ideals. Using this time to connect, reflect and strategize will ultimately promote stronger products and messaging that acknowledge the experiences of consumers.