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When needs must – how coronavirus has changed consumer behaviour

The uncertainty created by the Covid-19 pandemic has had a big impact on consumer behaviour that is crucial for marketers to understand, says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn

With the amount of disruption the world is facing at the moment – and the uncertainty about how things will shake out in the future – we are increasingly having to make decisions instinctively and often without much substantive intelligence.

For those of us who work in the fields of marketing or business development, the search to try and understand consumer buying decisions, patterns and behaviour is a constant one.

Understanding the psychology behind the buying decisions people make and the hierarchy in which they process information is very useful in helping us decide how to position a product and how to communicate a proposition.

But when things are disrupted, consumer behaviour can change dramatically and businesses may have very little time to react.

I am not a psychologist or a behavioural scientist who specialises in human cognitive behaviour but looking at buyer behaviour has been part of my analytical process during strategic brand or product positioning.

Having observed consumer behaviour during this COVID lockdown period and how some business quickly adjusted their marketing messages or evolved their products or services, what’s clear to me is that our DNA is hotwired to adapt.

One of the guiding theories for most marketers is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which plots the various physiological and emotional needs that must be fulfilled for humans to survive and thrive.

Needs at the bottom of the hierarchy are known as “deficiency needs” – things like food, water and safety which we can’t do without – moving through more psychological needs such as love, esteem and belonging. Maslow argued that a person needed to fulfil these more basic needs to reach the top of hierarchy – self-actualisation, or being the best you can – although nowadays the hierarchy is recognised as being a bit more fluid.

Marketers have long used this model to decide how to communicate effectively with consumers by charting where their product or service fits in the hierarchy of needs. But, in a pandemic or crisis situation, suddenly things are not quite the same. When basic needs are challenged, we naturally tend to make a different set of decisions that we would under “normal” circumstances.

Examples of this were during the first lockdown when our survival needs for safety and security kicked in and we started panic-buying toilet paper, bread flour and pasta. At the other end of the scale, you had many people step up to selflessly serve their community and support the vulnerable and their neighbours.

The behavioural changes we have been experiencing are quite significant. As humans we want the world to make sense and we want everything to fit nicely into what we believe without any dissonance.

With something like a pandemic, the parameters are changed very quickly and abruptly – there’s a sense of a loss of control and new, different priorities suddenly emerge. How businesses react to these changes, both in terms of their proposition and speed, can make or break their futures.

In difficult times consumers seek reassurance. At the most basic level, people want to know if something will be safe – is it safe to go out/eat out/stay out, will this keep my house clean, how can I make sure I get what my family needs?

Brands who answer this question and adapt their business model appropriately (sanitised surroundings, virtual services, guaranteed home delivery etc) will be at an advantage compared to those who don’t stop to smell the coffee.

Over time, and once those initial survival needs are met, consumers are open to more products and services that address the upper needs in the hierarchy. “I can’t go on holiday? Then maybe I’ll treat myself to some new furniture or the biggest 3DHD television I can get through the door.”

For marketers, it’s not just thinking about how you deliver your proposition; it’s also about how and where you communicate it. Lockdown has seen a huge shift to digital as people search for more information and entertainment online.

Promotional strategies need to change to take account of where people are spending their time and what new opportunities can be leveraged.

From a B2B perspective, remote working has also had a major impact on how we function and how we will go about things in the future. Adjusting your proposition to support home-based teams and a more virtual business environment will be important as will a focus on supporting employee well-being (one of the positive developments to have come out of the pandemic).

Here on the Isle of Man, we are extremely lucky that life has to a large degree gone back to “normal”. The ability to go about our business as usual is a truly remarkable gift we should respect and treasure.

However we are not out of the woods yet and many of us still have to relate and work with the rest of the world now in a second lockdown. How we navigate that environment will remain a challenge – and a challenge that will require empathy, careful consideration of changing needs and a new sense of purpose.