Navigating Change

The real question is not whether Covid-19 will affect your 2020 bottom line, but what are consumers doing instead of interacting with your brands that they’ll keep doing when the pandemic is over – and what are you doing about it today?

By Laurent Manes-Murphy, Head of Growth, EMEA,  Zoë Bishop, Account Director, and Jason Martin, Associate Director

Insight Directors are under pressure to own the perspective on customers, who are changing at an accelerated rate. What’s adding to the challenge is that the very integrity of research is being questioned: Is the context too potent? Are people too biased to help brands navigate the current climate?

We are seeing most of our clients pause traditional (and expensive) methods such as NPS and brand trackers, which don’t seem to be the right tools for the job at this moment, and instead over-invest in their online communities. Given the relationships built over time with participants, clients see this as an opportunity to have more trustworthy and honest conversations with consumers.

So what are they asking their consumers to help them with?

  • To Understand Today: Getting informed about how the current situation is affecting the industry and the brand, to help their company react sensitively.
  • To Anticipate Tomorrow: Getting a sense of what people are doing today, and what they will stop or continue doing when things go back to normal – to either minimise risk or be ready for possible future opportunities.
Understand Today

The COVID-19 situation is extremely complex and fast-moving. The closer businesses can stay to their customers throughout, the more reactive they can be, in the most timely and sensitive way. In this context the increased usage of the community seems to make a lot of sense. It works to:

Strengthen closeness and empathy: Providing a private space for customers to connect with each other (even when isolated) gives us the opportunity to hear first-hand from customers about what they are feeling, doing and needing in this unprecedented situation. It keeps a business’s stakeholders close to their customers.

Build cultural understanding, fast: Online methods are the most obvious way to bypass travel bans and lockdowns – communities help brands to grasp market nuances in-depth and at speed, allowing comms teams to tailor local comms so messages feel helpful and relevant.

Refine brand guidelines for the new normal: Crises forge relationships, but the line between opportunism and authenticity is extremely thin. Understanding how your brands can be seen as most supportive, valuable and relevant is crucial and will be the real step change.

Anticipate Tomorrow

Crises like coronavirus can change consumer behavior for good. The 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in China, for instance, has been credited for the sudden rise of internet usage and online shopping, leading to the huge success of Alibaba. Echoing this, the Covid-19 crisis has sparked a Silver Tech Revolution in China where quarantine has encouraged the aging population to use apps to meet life needs.

Preparing for recovery and life post-COVID-19 now is key, to get ahead of what the world will look like in one or two months’ time.

Generate foresight: And not through trackers – which tend to confirm the obvious (“people have stopped going to pubs”). Instead we should be thinking more carefully about behavior change and the global-scale deprivation experiment that is currently going on to help us distinguish what’s the new normal from what’s temporary. The longer this crisis persists, the more likely it is that new habits will become ingrained – customers’ changing preferences aren’t likely to go back to pre-outbreak norms. The key will be to know what they are and react faster than your competition. In France, for instance, cash now seems to be forbidden from most shops. Has this accelerated the full digitalization of payment? Has contactless become the new norm for older generations? And what role should payment businesses play in this new context?

Co-create with customers: Insight without change is (never) valuable: Understanding people’s new habits is step one. Step two is to innovate fast. And to avoid failing in execution, collaborating with customers to shape products, services and content for life after COVID-19 will be pivotal. Making home your office is probably the most obvious one: Flexible working will become the new norm. Seeing and IKEA over-invest in digital channels to make functional office furniture available to households is a sharp example of a category adapting at pace.


How Can We Do This Right Now? Key Steps to Make Communities Work Despite Covid-19

Tone/Message: Bringing customers into a community at this time will require a much more sensitive and tailored approach. However, explaining that you want to stay connected to your customers through these challenging times is an opportunity to show that you care and are listening to your customers. Given that customers may be faced with a long period of being at home, the community could be a welcome source of connection to others – and much-appreciated distraction.

Relationships: Don’t rush the set-up. We need to take the time to get to know members, and invest in creating a bond with moderators, and between themselves, so the community becomes a genuine space of connection and conversation.

Methodology and moderation: We will need to consider what sorts of activities are realistic and a valuable ask of customers. We can create the right environment for sharing and setup research to avoid bias, such as:

  • Creating space: Acknowledging the situation and giving members the opportunity to discuss Covid-19. We use exercises like “Clear the past”, or “Tantrum” that help us acknowledge the situation and give space to consumers to download everything that’s on their mind, so we can have more in-depth conversations afterwards.
  • System 1 thinking – or changing the context of questions: Positioning consideration or intent questions as long-term decisions, or asking them in a way that incorporates System 1 thinking – capturing an innate, irrational reaction without allowing them to think about the market and the effect it would have with latency testing, timed response to surveys, or click-tracking.
  • Tracking emotion and sentiment with sensitivity: Creating permission for customers to talk about their emotions and give them the opportunity to say what they need to say while we listen as researchers – for example not asking leading questions, asking follow-up questions that ask them to explain more about why they feel a certain way, and letting the customer guide the conversation so not to overwhelm them, particularly in a one-on-one setting.
  • Relying on qual vs. quant: Uncovering the whys and the words behind their decisions are very important during this time as it allows us to read between the lines about what people are saying, whether through open-ended responses or video. This can help to explain closed-ended data and put a face to what consumers are really thinking.
  • The Bench: Identify (or ask people to volunteer) a crack squad of 10-25 households to single out for extra attention. Get to know them really well and develop relationships with the whole household.  On top of normal community activities, go to the bench at regular intervals, or in immediate response to a business/market issue, to create video-based stories that you can spread among leadership. Not a tracker. No percentages. Humans. This will become the most crucial lever to ensure key decision-makers stay close to the reality of the people they serve, even when they’re in full lockdown.


How Did It Work? Two Recent Examples:

Challenge: A major supermarket chain needed to understand current customer perceptions of COVID-19 to better predict future consumer behaviors and form a stable contingency plan – specifically, how to manage panicked customer behavior and stockpiling.


Approach: Launching a daily poll to map and track emotional sentiment, concern around the disease, and confidence in the store, as well as a daily COVID diary for customers and employees to help the brand monitor and prioritize high-impact jobs.


Outcome: Urgently flagged by community members, these steps have now been rolled out as part of their ongoing response to Covid-19: Restrictions on certain items; setting hours for the elderly and vulnerable to shop in-store; new business regulation where employees can decide at their discretion whether to go into work.


Challenge: A global airline brand needed to ‘get it right’ in the way they communicated with frequent flyers during this challenging time to preserve customer sentiment and brand credibility.


Approach: As the crisis broke out, we provided spontaneous reporting of discussions of challenges and needs between members as travel plans were being affected. We also shared recent brand comms, specifically a letter from the CEO and an informative video that showed measures taken to minimize infection. We asked for their immediate reactions, clarity of messaging, and comms helpfulness.


Outcome: Within 48 hours, we were able to help them determine that their policy of free cancellation and rebooking was getting traction, giving daily updates on the number of travelers whose plans were being affected and providing a competitive perspective on how other airlines were reacting.