Commentary

There Will Be No Return To 'Normal'

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.

Much of America seems desperate to return to a pre-pandemic state. But yearning for a what was “normal” then fails to comprehend the implications of the pandemic’s deep and lasting impact on the human condition as we know it. Our narratives about ourselves as individuals, and as a society, are collapsing.

The vast majority — 87% — of Americans do not believe that life as they understood it will return to “normal.” A quarter feel their careers have stalled, and nearly half of all teenagers believe their progress as students has slowed significantly.

These data points are pulled from our study, “The Human Condition 2020: Shock to the System,” which surveyed more than 1,795 Americans aged 14-77 to understand how experiences and perceptions have altered in real-time since March.

For marketers, employers, parents and elected officials, the message is clear: Whatever assumptions we had operated under before March 2020 have been obliterated.

Changes

At home, Americans are re-evaluating their immediate surroundings. Nearly 40 million across the U.S. are moving or planning to move -- up 10% over 2019. We are looking for more space, yes, but Americans are also yearning to belong to a community more aligned with their values.

Of those who aren’t moving (or have already relocated), nearly a third plan to increase their spending with local businesses. People are focusing on more meaningful relationships in their personal lives too, shedding those that pose ideological dissonance. In other words, the political divide that existed before the pandemic is proliferating.

Early in the pandemic, brands relied on trite “we’re here for you” assurances. But for all the pablum about “these unprecedented times” and being “all in this together,” a majority of the U.S. population is feeling isolated and alone.

“Don't sell to me right now, just tell me your name and what you're doing for your consumers and employees,” said Brenda, a 32-year-old working mother in California. The need for brands to understand their "why" isn't new. But there is a newfound urgency and insistence to truly internalize your purpose and genuinely act on it.

Nearly two-thirds (61%) of Americans feel the pandemic has been a “curse.”  Beyond repeated shockwaves of record unemployment, teenagers especially are more than two-thirds likely to say they’re struggling and feeling detached. They report being both more obsessed with tech and more concerned about its potential harms. Technology is intensifying their sense of isolation, and the effects are likely to reverberate for a generation or more to come.

Silver linings

Though the collective impact has been intense, there are green shoots emerging. Nearly half of those surveyed report making positive life changes during the pandemic that they plan to maintain. Gym attendance is down for obvious reasons, but respondents are more likely than ever to report incorporating fitness and wellness routines into their home or outdoor workouts. And as people move or spend more time with their loved ones and at local businesses, their connection to where they live may develop more meaningful roots.

“I don't want to return to my pre-COVID normal. I was running so fast, and accomplishing very little of substance. I had a belief that I was going to be able to sustain that way of life for the next few decades,” said “Dana,” a 50-year-old respondent from Colorado. “The reality is that I was missing everything—the beauty of the world, the growth of my kids, the love of my partner.”

For marketers struggling to understand their consumers today, these findings are critical. Truly understanding the varied experiences people are having -- particularly as it relates to our relationships, our sense of place, and our personal purpose -- is vital to creating meaningful and compassionate action with brands, employees, and individuals.

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