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Will COVID-19 Change Consumer Behaviours?

In the past month, I have tried to understand what will be the short and mid-term impact of the covid-19 outbreak on consumer behavior.

It’s beginning of April 2020 and I’ve been locked down in Brussels for more than three weeks. This unexpected course of events reminds me that in business – and life in general – things do not always go as planned. Most of our clients are currently focused on making sure we’ll all have enough food (#foodheroes) and the best thing I can do right now to help is to stay at home.

Along with my partners, I run a small boutique consulting business that specialises in delivering consumer-centric business solutions and so we look at consumers’ actual behaviour. Our passion is to understand why consumers do what they actually do – and not what they claim they do. That’s how we have an edge matching consumer needs and insights with market drivers.

Contradictory signals

In the past month, I have tried to understand what consumer behavior is right now and what will be the short and mid-term impact of the covid-19 outbreak on consumer behaviour.

I’ve read extensively – magazines, newspapers, articles, reports, and books – listened to the radio, talked to people and watched TV channels from different countries since the outbreak started.

I’ve been struck by the high number of contradictory analyses – or rather opinions – on how the world, society, economy will change in the future because of the covid-19 outbreak.

Back to basics

That’s why I decided to go back to basics and to my specific focus as a professional: what leads people to actually change their shopping and consumption behaviors. The Power of Habit, a book by Charles Duhigg, is a great framework to evaluate consumer behavior changes.

This very well documented book was written with the objective to help people and businesses understand how to turn a bad habit into a good one. This book also shed some light on how to support organizational and societal changes. This time, I’ve read this book with the covid-19 outbreak perspective in mind.

Why and how do habits emerge?

Habits emerge in our brain without our permission. The human brain constantly looks for efficiencies, so that we can stop thinking about basic behaviors so as to devote mental energy to something more important. Habits sit in the limbic system while decisions sit in the prefrontal cortex.

In habit mode, the brain stops making decisions and a pattern unfolds automatically. This pattern works in a 3-step loop:

    1. Cue
      A cue is a trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode. It can be almost anything from a visual trigger to a given place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people.
    2. Routine
      A routine can be incredibly complex or extremely simple.
    3. Reward
      It can range from foods or drugs (physical sensations) to emotional payoffs.

When repeated, the loop creates a neurological craving (anticipation of the reward).

How can habits be changed?

The book focuses on how to change habits at the individual and collective level. To change a habit, you need to keep the cue and the reward and replace the routine. Why? because habits never disappear. That’s how old habits can reemerge rather easily. The limbic system is just waiting for the right cues and rewards. See how President Trump had issues dropping the shaking hands habit!

People also have to be convinced that the change will improve their life because changing requires a lot of will power and efforts. And when things get really tense, people go back to their comfort zones and old habits. A crisis can push people to reconsider or even reform their life priorities. Still, this is not easy as people under huge stress and pressure tend to stick to their reassuring routines.

Focusing on consumer behavior and how it can change, there are 2 main learnings from this book:

    1. Learning #1
      It takes a lot to change a habit!

    2. Learning #2
      Using a 3-step loop consumer centric habits framework can help you launch a new product, service, brand,…

COVID-19 impacts?

Focusing on the covid-19 current crisis, I think that we can make educated assumptions on current and future consumer behaviors based on the book learnings:

    • Current behaviour change
      People are rushing to comfort food – pasta, rice, pizza – and stockpiling it because they crave for the rewarding physical sensation carbs will provide in times of boredom and anxiety.

    • Future assumption
      New routines forced by the lockdown will only become new habits if the rewards bring higher satisfaction to consumers than the previous ones.

    • Current behaviour change
      Some consumers are installing new hygiene habits in times of crisis, but it is not easy to develop this new habit. Whatever the effectiveness of masks – I’m not a doctor, I cannot tell – they can create a visual cue to remind and help people adopt new habits of social distancing and hygiene.

    • Future assumption
      Unless people keep the cues – such as a mask – hygiene habits may not change in the future and people may go back to their previous routines.

Three tips

Beez can help you think through the specific consumer behavior changes relevant to your business strategy, and how you market your products now and in the short to mid-term. Our general tips on the current crisis are:

    1. Tip#1
      It is really early in the crisis to make substantiated predictions about future consumer behaviours. Do not spend a lot of time predicting and planning. Focus on taking action today.

    2. Tip#2
      Keep an eye on your target consumer habits now, but remember that in the future, some behavior may continue, while some may go back to what it was like before.

    3. Tip#3
      Be agile and flexible so you can adapt to what comes next.

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