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Predicting Post- COVID Socio-Cultural ‘Super-Trends’

October 2021

By Claire Brooks

Almost two years after COVID-19 first became a public health concern, brands question whether there are long-lasting shifts in consumer mindset or behavior. In this blog we look at the evidence and suggest that COVID supercharged pre-pandemic trends, creating stress-cracks in the consumer environment and new, contradictory consumer psychodynamics, which have implications for brand strategy.

1.     Super-Trend #1: Divided by Anger and Mistrust.

Unequal health and economic impacts of COVID have triggered anger and mistrust of institutions and ‘the other’ in society. Trust in government declined even further after the initial stages of the pandemic, but trust in business has increased and CEOs are increasingly expected to take a stance on societal issues, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Trust in all information sources is at a record low, not helped by Facebook’s apparent cover-up regarding the impact of Instagram on vulnerable teen consumers, and there’s a new consumer appetite for developing science literacy to sift through brand (mis-) information. Additionally, COVID disproportionately affected lower income consumer segments, many of whom were ‘key workers’, driving anger and civic disengagement. These consumers are now quitting their jobs in record numbers in the US, especially women, who are burned out by juggling childcare and work from home.

“Being an essential worker sucked. People who quarantined were making more money than I was without working... the rest of the world got a paid vacation and I got screwed.”

Female age 18-29

Implication: Increasingly, consumers trust brands and expect them to take an authentic stance on societal issues and be transparent with information. How are your brands making an informed stand on the issues and showing empathy for citizens disenfranchised by the pandemic, including women?

2.     Super-Trend #2: Eco-Fear

Consumers are increasingly anxious about climate change, with 4/10 young adults now reluctant to have kids because of concerns about the future of the planet. Pre-pandemic, consumers were aware, but lockdowns highlighted the need to cherish access to green spaces. The trend to move from downtown to smaller cities and the suburbs continues, especially since many workplaces have maintained remote working. More consumers are now seeking a better balance between human consumerism and the natural world. The automotive industry is rapidly transitioning to electric vehicles, soothing eco-fear with marketing programs, and clothing brands like Levi’s are putting sustainable consumption at the heart of their brand purpose, consistent with their brand heritage. 26% of Millennials are now vegetarian encouraging new market entrants to launch ever more convenient plant-based food options. However, while consumers are open to products and experiences which calm eco-fear, many remain unwilling to compromise on consumption pleasure, as demonstrated by the controversial growth in luxury ‘ecotourism’. Younger consumers (68% of Gen Z) are more likely to report that they consider environmental impact of their travel even while dreaming of jetting off to a tropical destination (88%).

Implication: ‘Eco-fear’ will increasingly influence product purchasing and brand perceptions. A powerful environmental stance is a brand must-have as consumers become more eco-fearful and more informed, but consumers want it all. How are your brands prioritizing sustainability and minimizing their carbon footprint integral to their core promise?  

3.     Super-Trend #3: “After COVID, I deserve it!”

Despite concerns about the planet, luxury spending is soaring as consumers reward themselves for the sacrifices of lockdown and splurge, leading to speculation that the developed world is entering a period of growing excess and inequality similar to the ‘Roaring Twenties’ (which followed the deprivations and horrors of the First World War). This trend is seen across income quartiles because lower-income consumers benefited from government stimulus during lockdowns, leading to faster growth in the lowest incomes. Psychologically the consumer mood is very different from that during the recession which followed 9/11, when American consumers were fearful and inhibited by guilt from conspicuously indulgent consumption, as discussed in ModelPeople’s book Marketing with Strategic Empathy®  (Contact us to request a copy of the case study). Even accessible luxury brands are enhancing personal luxury, like auto brand Genesis’ new concierge service. Sensory luxury is also a trend as consumers seek emotional healing, as evidenced by the strong growth of curated self-care brands like Cult Beauty and the popularity of luxury bath products. Consumers feel they deserve a little luxury - especially if it’s eco-friendly or feels connected to nature too. 

Implication: Brands will face many challenges in the post-COVID economy including supply chain and pricing constraints. How can your brands leverage the opportunity to speak to a consumer desire for luxury at all price points while calming the contradictory impulse to eco-fear?

4.     Super-Trend #4: (Mental) Health Matters

Consumers often trot out the cliché ‘health comes first’ but COVID supercharged health motivation and freed up time to increase healthy behaviors like exercising, finding new ways to be active and eating healthier at home. Mental health also gained long-overdue focus. The widely experienced stresses of working from home removed some of the stigma around workplace conversations about mental health. Loneliness, fear and anxiety affected many but especially older consumers and children. Older consumers were particularly hard hit by redundancy or frightened into early retirement, with twice as many retiring in 2020 as in 2019 (US Gov't data). Children have been impacted by anxiety owing to school closures, especially lower-income and ethnic-minority youth. Globally, mental health attracts a shockingly low 2% of healthcare funding and the pandemic has created deep stress cracks in healthcare priorities relative to escalating need, which must be addressed (WFMH: World Mental Health Day 2021) to avoid a future pandemic of mental ill-health.

Implication: Brands which can demonstrate how they care about mental health, and offer affordable ways to increase it, will win. Corporations which profit from consumers must engage in societal efforts to improve mental health access, support mental health-marginalized communities via brand programs and accelerate programs to promote mental health in the workplace. What can your brands do to show that mental health matters?

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