One of the clearest trends to have emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic is that consumers have changed their shopping habits, with leading high street retailers including Sainsbury’s suggesting that radical shifts in buying behaviour may prove to be permanent.
To date, the focus has primarily been on purchasing channels – with data demonstrating a rapid shift towards online shopping platforms and an increased willingness among shoppers to trial reduced contact solutions such as Sainsbury’s SmartShop and Target’s Drive Up.
As consumers become accustomed to ‘the new normal’, there are a wide range of challenges for brand owners to address. How do they respond if consumers are concerned about touching plastic or metal packaging? With consumers increasingly cash-strapped, what happens to non-essential impulse buys?
And there’s more. Does the brand have a multi-pack option, which allows buyers to make fewer trips to the shop? Or is it stuck with dozens of product variants at a time when supermarkets are reducing the number of lines they put on the shelf?
There are no easy answers. The retail market is evolving so quickly that brand consultants barely know what will happen in the next six weeks, let alone the next six months.
Against the backdrop of so much uncertainty, brands no longer have the luxury of engaging in lengthy multi-million-pound product development and marketing cycles. Instead, they need to adopt a faster, test and learn-based approach. Here are six top tips for how brands will need to evolve their models to respond to this seismic shift:
Embrace trial and error
Brands need to get products to market much quicker, testing them with target consumers and rapidly learning and adapting from the results. For established brands encumbered with legacy business models, this shorter development cycle may pose a significant challenge. One way of breaking the resistance to trial and error is to work with smaller, more nimble partners that can iterate ideas quickly, and get them out into testing and the market. It’s all about embracing the digital first mentality of ‘done is better than perfect‘, where executing an idea and iterating constantly based on user research is the goal.
Encourage an ideas-led culture
The trial and error-led model only works if brands have a healthy funnel of ideas. So the goal is to triage the ones that look promising, then test. You might begin with 10 ideas, narrow it down to four, then test them – all the while being comfortable with the prospect that three of them might fail. This openness to ideas will make it possible to quickly identify changes in the way consumers relate to the brand.
Think like a startup
Big brands are used to having huge market share and high visibility in supermarkets. But if fewer people are going to a supermarket they need to think more like a challenger brand or a startup. In the world of voice recognition, for example, the sensory design that drives point of sale impulse purchasing becomes irrelevant. New triggers need to be found that fit the channels available and also make sense for the brand. Starbucks’ voice enabled ordering system which allows consumers to pre-order a coffee via Alexa from their car, is a good example of an initiative which will work well post lockdown.
Question the need for the big campaign
Many brands are reliant on glossy campaigns tied to traditional events in the calendar. But it would be a brave brand strategist who claims to know what is going to happen in the run up to Christmas 2020. Instead of ploughing millions into one big marketing idea, brands should be spreading smaller budgets across a much wider range of ideas. A good example of how to do this from before Covid-19 was Pepsi’s sparkling water brand Bubly, which geared most of its launch activity towards digital first advertising and content marketing. Intuitive new content marketing platforms such as Contentful make it easier than ever to devise content-led campaigns across platforms.
Reappraise a brand’s ethical positioning
These are emotionally challenging times, so it stands to reason that people are rethinking their relationships with products. Some consumers will come out of Covid-19 eating fewer snacks, while others will buy more produce locally as part of a sustainability drive. One clear trend is a propensity to be loyal to products that have behaved ethically during the sharp end of the crisis. A survey by global commerce services company PFS found that 54% of UK online shoppers will be less likely to spend money with brands and retailers that treated their staff poorly during the virus.
Brands need to think about ways in which non-traditional partnerships might help them counter Covid-19 challenges. Snacks are an adjacent sector to takeaway, for example, so maybe there is an argument for piggybacking their delivery network to get products into the home (get a pizza and chocolate from Just Eat at the same time).
Retailers like Aldi are selling food parcels that contain 22 products online. Brands should be exploring whether it makes sense for them to be in that bundle or, linking back to the bulk purchasing point, whether they have sufficient products of their own to make up a direct to consumer parcel (think Unilever, P&G).
There are no two ways about it, the financial, health and logistical aftershocks of Covid-19 will reset the way brands connect with consumers. For those brands willing to listen to consumers, quickly adapt to their new behaviours and form imaginative partnerships to meet their needs, the opportunities will outweigh the risks.
Jez Proctor, UK managing director, Appnovation