Many aspects of our current lives are undergoing a transformation as habits developed to cope with the pandemic are altering otherwise ingrained behaviors. This is especially so in media, where thirst for information and entertainment is causing shifts.
How permanent or landscape-altering are these shifts? Mike Cooper, global president and CEO for Rapport, offers some insights. Rapport is part of IPG Mediabrands, focusing on out-of-home media planning.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Charlene Weisler: How have consumer behaviors changed during the pandemic, and how have they stayed the same?
Mike Cooper: I guess the first, and obvious, response, is that consumers are staying home, a huge, unprecedented and never-before-seen state of affairs. Couple this with an understandable sense of insecurity, holistically across a population, then people are going to spend less on things they don’t “need” — and indeed, the word “need” becomes completely redefined, or returns to its actual meaning.
Therefore, the need to buy groceries remains the same, but the need for a new pair of jeans, has vanished. Everyone is more cautious; therefore, the main body of the population will spend less.
Weisler: How strong is brand loyalty now?
Cooper: It’s a strange concept. Brand loyalty is a result of many things. A home keeper may be 100% loyal to washing liquid, as it does a better job than any other, therefore as a low-cost item, that “loyalty” may ride this wave.
However, the hedge-fund guy who can no longer afford the Ferrari, that he is loyal to as it fuels his ego, is no less loyal to the brand. In fact, he likely craves it more than ever, but simply can’t afford it. When/ if he can again, he will be back more ferociously than ever.
Brand loyalty, during such extreme times as these, will suffer when a brand is not seen to understand said times, or the struggles consumers face going through it. Consumers want to see that the brands they love are in the fight with them. Shake Shack returning $10 million back to the federal government was the ultimate “we are in this together” moment and will only increase their base.
During times of extended uncertainty, consumers often revert back to heritage brands, those they trust and those they know have been up against adversity in the past. Brands that can pivot on the fly due to their potential infrastructure, will earn respect that will develop to loyalty, at least short-term.
P&G used its factories to produce masks and hand sanitizer, while Ford and GE Healthcare teamed up to produce respirators and ventilators to help COVID-19 patients and frontline staff. These community effects on a global scale only continue to weave their narrative for times like these.
Weisler: Do you see a shift in amount of consumer spending?
Cooper: Right now, there is both reduction and shift, and really driven by the lack of an alternative, over a subliminal change in behavior. People are spending more on Amazon, as they are stuck at home. More on groceries as they can’t eat out.
On the flip, people are spending less on commuting, coffee & dry cleaning, things that were deemed essential mere weeks ago, though these will return, as and when life returns to some kind of normality, but, to what level? Again, people are nervous for the immediate and long-term future of themselves and the economy, so inevitably, we are all more frugal.
Weisler: What do you see as the long-term trend in consumer behavior?
Cooper: The truth is, only time will tell. Through all great crisis, the human race has proved to be both incredibly enduring and forgetful, both important survival traits, so we don’t live in eternal fear.
The consumer normal will be driven by the economic and commercial normal, and that is anyone’s gamble.
Will large corporations still rent 25 floors of premium real estate in Manhattan, having survived this time with [that office] sitting empty? If 75% of the workforce are working from home 3 days a week, who will fill the lunchtime restaurants and sandwich shops?
What of the cleaners, security guards & catering companies that service office space that may be sitting empty, as well as the transport industry, public and private, that ferry us all around? There is a very real risk, that corporate America will take this opportunity, to save going forward, not re-employ or reinvest, but look to improve margin and boost share price first. The trickledown economics that so many are a fan of, only works -- if indeed it does at all -- with a trickle.