Ongoing reverberations from the coronavirus pandemic are dramatically reshaping what customers expect from their interactions with brands. As behaviours continue to shift, businesses that prioritise experiences at a corporate and local level will emerge stronger.
Though it’s not over yet, 2020 has already delivered a year of seismic change for businesses.
In a short period of time, the locked-down nature of the response to coronavirus has forced companies to accelerate their digital and ecommerce capabilities, while ensuring they deliver brand communications and experiences that support customers in a relevant, human way.
Where marketers are operating in an era of uncertainty, so too are consumers.
Amid a decline in consumer confidence and reduced purchasing power, a global economic downturn is developing. A recent study from the American Association of Advertising Agencies found this environment is also driving changes to long-held habits.
Almost half (49 per cent) of people say they’re avoiding eating out, while 27 per cent are ordering food delivery and/or takeout. Some 44 per cent say they aren’t comfortable going outside for non-essential items and another 37 per cent say they are buying online instead of in-store.
What is also clear, though, is consumers believe businesses have a key role to play in responding to the crisis, especially at a local level.
The same research found 56 per cent of people are happy to hear how brands are helping communities in response to the pandemic. A further 43 per cent find it reassuring to hear from companies they know and trust in uncertain times.
Brands that adapt to these changing expectations and experiences designed to onboard new customers and retain current ones will be in a better position for the post-COVID-19 world and long-term changes that will come with it.
Customers in flux
“Customers are now demanding an experience that, in many ways, transcends product,” says Jay Dettling, chief executive officer of independent global marketing technology and services firm Ansira.
Customers are now demanding an experience that, in many ways, transcends product
Dettling observes that even pre-COVID-19, there was a distinct pivot away from brand loyalty being forged by differentiation or value. Instead customers are now buying into what businesses stand for and the frictionless experiences they can provide, whether that’s using an app to order groceries or asking Alexa about store opening times.
In this moment, however, a primary barometer of brand experience for customers is how organisations are stepping in to take care of them at a time when they feel uncertain about what the future holds, and health and wellbeing is a priority.
Dettling says: “How a brand interacts with its customers in terms of health and wellness has really risen up the importance chart. Companies that have demonstrated real empathy for customers and put that in front of profit have stood apart.”
Building experiences that make people feel as though their health is a priority are now essential for the likes of brick-and-mortar retailers and restaurants.
Solutions might be as simple as implementing frictionless payment systems and clearly communicating in an on-brand way how social distancing rules will be adhered to in physical spaces.
However, those that get the balance right will ultimately reap the rewards. Ipsos’ Consumer Health and Safety Index from May 2020 shows 62 per cent of Americans will stop shopping at retailers that are not taking health and safety seriously. Some 24 per cent say they would pay 10 per cent more for products at stores doing a superior job with health and safety.
The new customers aren’t just focused on health either, they want reassurance in other areas.
So brands have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use experiences to build a deeper connection with consumers or risk losing the relationship forever.
For Andy Arnold, executive vice president of Ansira Channel, who has experience across the automotive, consumer packaged goods, retail, hospitality and technology industries, COVID-19 is shining a light on an experience gap that can be plugged by approaching marketing through a local lens.
Customers, he says, have grown accustomed to the way titans like Amazon and Starbucks have disrupted the market and, amid the pandemic, they’ve come to expect those same seamless experiences from smaller, more local brands.
“Before, customers might have tolerated it if your company was the local grocery store and it was easy to walk to or access. So it wasn’t necessarily critical for you to have digital touchpoints or contactless ordering,” says Arnold.
“However, COVID-19 has really illuminated the brands that are doing those things, leading customers to realise someone else is doing it better than you, because they’re focused on a more holistic customer experience.”
Following a pivot to shopping and ordering locally in lockdown, Ansira has seen an increased demand from local enterprises, franchises and dealerships to help them deliver local experiences with efficient media spend that accounts for supply chain impacts.
“Local has exploded,” says Arnold, attributing it to several factors including the slate of new content required from local firms, from dentists to coffee shops, to relay basic information to customers and drive physical and digital footfall. In the United States, where the government has taken a state-by-state approach, franchisees have also leaned into more agile media and search engine optimisation buying to ensure their messaging is right.
Kelly Jo Sands, executive vice president of Ansira Digital, says for local operators, franchisees and dealerships, cuts to brand budgets at a corporate level have forced a planning and owned-platforms rethink.
“With base budgets on hold, we’ve been giving brands with distributed ecosystems the tools to plus up local media in their area,” she says.
“Historically, verticals like quick service restaurants have looked at their websites as informational landing pads. Now they’re finding this presence is super important so they can switch out the content to make customers aware of their opening times and the nuances of interacting with them in this period. It sounds quite operational, but it’s so important.”
Companies, local and national, are still in the acknowledge-and-adapt phase of the pandemic. However, for those looking to build customer experiences that lead to stickiness beyond the crisis, Dettling has some guidance.
“Businesses often fall into the trap of thinking they know their customer. But they should be asking themselves whether they really do and thinking about how much they’d want you to spend on evolving the product versus how you interact with them,” he says.
“Stay close to them, monitor their expectations and their levels of satisfaction.”
It’s certainly advice that transcends this moment in time.
For more information please visit www.ansira.com