The etymology of the term “crisis” refers in Latin to a “turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death” but comes in fact from the ancient Greek krinein, “to judge.” By analogy, the massive economic crisis that will follow COVID-19 will dramatically accelerate existing gaps in how companies have adapted to the multiple transformations they have been facing in the past decade. Many companies will fail to emerge from this crisis. Those that do will make critical decisions in the coming weeks and months well beyond work-from-home policies to help workers adapt. It is time to anticipate the world after the coronavirus, what the new normal may look like, and to truly rethink how to engage employees to reinvent customer experiences. While it is extremely difficult to predict the mid- to long-term political, societal, and economic impacts of the current crisis, we expect it to further polarize society and lead to lasting changes. A first way to anticipate it is to deep-dive into consumers’ perceptions. That’s why, with some of my colleagues — Enza Iannopollo, Michelle Beeson, Aurelie L’Hostis, and Martin Gill — we are analyzing the impact of the current crisis on consumer behaviors, attitudes, and values across different European countries.
Crises offer rare opportunities to answer identity questions and to step back and change directions. However, crises more often than not accelerate preexisting trends, reveal gaps, and reinforce people in their convictions.
On the one hand, we expect more values-based consumers to demand authentic societal engagement from brands. Values based on family, proximity, cohesion, authenticity, transparency, privacy, and frugality will grow in importance. Consumers will increasingly scrutinize products before buying them: if they have been produced locally, how healthy they are, what their environmental impact is, and how the company producing them is treating its employees. They will increasingly care about the meaning of their purchases and question what brands stand for, all the more as social media lays bare the ethics of firms in crisis.
On the other hand, it is easy to argue that bad habits will overcome good intentions. The economic depression will inevitably lead to business bankruptcy, more unemployment, lower purchasing power, and social unrest. Consumers may care about values, but they will also demand lower prices and efficacy, no matter if they’re not tied to being environmentally friendly or fully GDPR-compliant.
As we enter the post-pandemic recovery, business leaders will need to reposition their ethics and community programs, shifting from ad hoc volunteer days to more systematic and meaningful social activities that align with their core values.
- The crisis will accelerate the quest for purpose. Some 59% of UK, 62% of French, and 71% of Italian online adults say it is important that companies operate on a socially responsible level. Values-based consumers, who have a strong sense of affiliation to their communities, expect brands’ commitment to community values to continue after the emergency. Consumers want to do business with firms that share their values; they are also likely to identify brands that aren’t authentic and will attack “purpose washing” if brands don’t live up to their promises.
- European consumers care about the environment. When we asked about the corporate values that matter the most to them, environmental protection was the most popular response, with 50% of Italian, 45% of French, and 43% of UK online adults saying it was important. As we see a global reduction in air pollution and canals in Venice running clear, COVID-19 has underlined the impact of climate change.
- Brands must embrace authentic commitment to sustainability while recognizing consumers’ cognitive dissonance. European consumers will increasingly choose firms that provide greener options, whether that’s more environmentally friendly options for online deliveries, greener technology running in the back end, or more sustainable and local value chains. With a severe decline in purchasing power, however, it is likely that many consumers won’t be able to afford the premium for buying from sustainable brands, so their actions may not match their values.
Clients can access some first insights in the following links:
Stay tuned for deeper analysis and detailed reports for various European countries in the days and weeks to come.