It’s an understatement to say we’re living in uncertain times right now. But I recently had the privilege of joining an invite-only “Macro Trend Review” led by our friends at the International Trend Institute (ITI) out of Durban, South Africa, that provided powerful insights into what’s next.
At this annual event, ITI reports its research outlining the global trends shaping consumer behavior. This year was different. With ITI putting the finishing touches on its 2020 report, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe.
An overhauled Macro Trend Review emerged, and with it comes important guidance for brands looking to survive and thrive in the “new normal.”
Three Macro Trends
The trends most impacting consumer thinking and behavior in the “Age of COVID” fall into three broad categories, which ITI calls:
What follows is a snapshot of each category, three core trends within each, and most importantly, the implications for brands.
As most of the world’s population has experienced what ITI researcher Chris Reid calls “an enforced period of cocooning,” our relationships with other people and even ourselves have changed almost overnight.
Trend 1: Home Base
At the center of our cocooning is home. The very idea of “home” is evolving as we reconsider the role our living spaces play. Once a sanctuary and oasis, it’s now the multimodal hub of life. Privacy suddenly comes at a premium, and we crave spaces of our own at home. As working from home becomes the norm, we will see a shift away from open floor plans, carving out more formal home offices and reconfiguring home life to meet the changing definition of all that “home” encompasses.
Trend 2: Comfort with Imperfection
If you’re rocking the “COVID cut” from too many weeks away from a stylist, you’re already experiencing this trend. Add to that your changing definition of what it means to be “camera-ready” for videoconferencing, and you really understand it. From limited access to hair care to relaxed wardrobe expectations, to dwindling supplies (or incentive to use) of beauty products, more of us have been letting go of the notion that we have to look our best. Instead, we opt for “the best that we can” under the circumstances. After all, there are bigger problems out there. And it doesn’t stop with our looks. Cut off from many goods and services, we have been forced to develop new do-it-yourself skills, with sometimes messy results. And that’s okay.
Trend 3: Total Wellness
Wellness continues toward a more holistic definition, going beyond exercise and healthy eating to encompass sleep, mindfulness, mental health and now financial health. The latter is taking on increased significance as research links financial well-being to physical and mental health. In the throes of a deep economic downturn, these connections will be felt acutely. In response, consumers seek more self-directed and accessible ways of managing their health across the entire spectrum on their own terms.
So Brands Should …
- Rethink the home – Where does your brand intersect with the new definition of home? Whatever aspect of consumer life you were a part of before, it lives at home more than ever. How do your products or services help people there?
- Embrace imperfection – Infuse your brand with some real humanity. Where can you showcase how your products or services are helping real people in less-than-camera-ready conditions? What useful DIY wisdom can your brand impart to those learning new skills, from cooking to cleaning, to home maintenance or telecommuting?
- Empower total wellness – For the consumer, think about how your product or service supports wellness from different angles – physical, mental and financial. To bring greater health to what you do, do you need a partner brand to bring wellness to the table? At the very least, expand your definition of employee wellness to go beyond salad bars, yoga classes and exercise incentives and consider benefits like personal financial coaching, meditation apps and cooking classes.
Ironically, we’ve been forced to disconnect physically in our otherwise most connected age, sparking several shifts in our thinking, behavior and sense of place.
Trend 4: Me/We
Tensions between the good of the individual and the good of the community were on the rise long before the coronavirus. And it’s well known that Gen Y and Z value being socially conscious more than their #OKBoomer forebears. Yet the pandemic – and anticipation of future outbreaks – creates more new intersections between “me” and “we.” Just observe the compliance (or lack thereof) with social distancing guidelines and the polarized discourse playing out on social media. As health-data privacy concerns collide with the proven benefit of contact-tracing strategies to contain the virus for the collective good, we will be forced to weigh how much freedom and privacy we are willing to give up to help others.
Trend 5: Diminished Workplace Hierarchy
Ideas about corporate hierarchy are shifting. Away from the office, more people have been self-managing and will be even less receptive to being “managed” through traditional structures. At the same time, we’ve become what ITI calls “radically humanized” via videoconferencing, seeing into our colleagues’ homes and lifestyles like never before. This makes it easier to see colleagues and bosses more like peers – with dogs and kids and sweatpants – and harder to go back to traditional corporate hierarchies.
Trend 6: Renewed Rituals
Trend briefings aren’t known for poignant moments of eerie sadness, but when ITI introduced a slide that read, “An already lonely world says goodbye to touch,” I think everyone in the meeting felt something. And it’s true: before the pandemic, we were seeing a trend of accelerating loneliness, anxiety and depression – now it may get much worse. In a socially distanced world, physical touch comes at a huge premium, which sadly may continue well into the future. And, without the usual rituals like birthday parties, holiday gatherings and in-person religious observances to mark time, the present can seem to extend forever in both directions, leaving us feeling unmoored and disconnected. If the virus forces us into periodic, repeating lockdowns, we will need new ways to connect with loved ones, find personal intimacy and mark special occasions. We will yearn for the moments that remind us of natural cycles, social circles and our place in both.
So Brands Should …
- Reimagine the social – If traditional gatherings remain rarer, brands that “virtualize” in-person events, experiences and interactions, ideally with more imagination than the first wave of live-streamed events we’re seeing now, will have something very real to offer.
- Foster real, human connections – We’ve had more than enough digital connection time. How might your brand foster socially distanced – but memorable and meaningful – interactions in the real world?
- Refresh your employee brand – Assess what the pivotal shift in workplace dynamics means for your brand. Is there enough flexibility in who you are to adapt to a decentralized workplace with greater independence among individual contributors?
The fact that we live in a globally connected society has never been clearer, adding a sense of urgency to our global responsibilities.
Trend 7: Age of Anxiety
We were already seeing an increased urgency around climate action. Now we find ourselves in an even more urgent global crisis that, like climate, impacts us all. In the face of intangible, worldwide threats like these, we naturally feel out of control and find ourselves looking for little things we can control in our lives. For me, it’s about how the dishwasher is loaded.
Trend 8: Full Circle
In the Age of Anxiety, it is no longer acceptable to sit on the sidelines. Expect to see more social pressure on individuals and brands to be part of the solution to our big, existential threats. Being unsustainable is officially uncool, while sustainable behavior is a new symbol of sophistication. Responsible and sustainable food-ingredient sourcing is approaching the mainstream, while next-gen ideas like closed-loop building design are becoming a 21st century imperative. (For an outstanding example, check out Triodos Bank in the Netherlands, which can be dismantled completely and recycled at the end of its functional life.)
Trend 9: Culture of Care
It was already becoming good business for companies to be good to the people they serve, and the pandemic has only accelerated this trend. When faced with crisis, the new imperative is for people and organizations to respond with kindness. The “caremongering” movement in Canada is a prime example of people helping people, and many brands have jumped on this trend. And they should, because consumers will gravitate toward brands that exhibit genuine kindness and care in real and practical ways.
So Brands Should …
- Create certainty – In the Age of Anxiety, people crave certainty. About anything. Help them find it, wherever and however you can.
- Close the gap – Offer more transparency on product inputs and give them ways to make those products more environmentally sustainable. Show your customers how your products got to them and where they go (or can go, with the buyer’s help) after they’re used. And if you haven’t taken a good, hard look at your sustainability practices, now is the time.
- Be kind – Your customers are emotionally exhausted. Show them much you appreciate and empathize with them. But make it genuine. There are already too many brands running self-centered advertisements masquerading as care campaigns.
What to Do with All This?
If you’ve made it this far, you have to be asking this question. So here’s my advice: gather your agencies and brand managers and start thinking about how each of these trends impacts the people you serve, then start brainstorming ways to make a difference for those people when they need it most. In a matter of days, or even hours, you could dream up a short list of powerful marketing ideas and innovations that could change your brand’s trajectory in these difficult times.