Have you ever noticed that the most successful brands always seem to know exactly what people want? They serve customer needs and discover unmet needs that no other brand is addressing. The best of the best, launch new and better ways to exceed expectations in ways that forever change how people get through every day.
Their competitive advantage is rooted in their understanding of the nuances of human behavior to create meaningful differentiation. Their insight may materialize into an incredible feature, a desirable style of service, or a motivating brand promise and societal contribution – something that sparks a strong emotional connection and ongoing brand desire.
Typically, consumer preferences evolve in small increments and in random patterns across product categories and consumer segments. But we now have a glimpse as to what happens when the world changes, in a big way, all at once – when a worldwide phenomenon, like a global pandemic, causes so many things to suddenly evolve. When people’s everyday routines are altered. When technology adoption occurs at a pace not often seen. When consumers gravitate toward the brand experience that best suits their needs without thinking twice.
Yesterday’s consumer insights are outdated
No longer can we rely on old data about customers. We can’t rely on past insights about how people live their lives, nor can we assume that what people positively responded to in the past is still their preference today. Demographics may be the same, but lifestyles, priorities, and motivations have changed.
Phillip Raub, a retail innovator and CEO of Model No., an on-demand sustainable furniture brand, says: “You have to know who your customer is. Go after that consumer with all the fury and passion that you have… Today, you can’t just look at your customer as a demographic. They’re not just male or female between an age range. It’s more of a lifestyle… We need to look at what a brand stands for from a lifestyle perspective.”
Fact is, most people have recently adjusted their lifestyle in one way or another – more time at home, less time consuming in stores and restaurants, greater integration of online and in-store shopping, increased devotion to family and professional independence, heightened health and safety concerns, and more entrenched polarization of beliefs and actions.
Some brand leaders may hopelessly be waiting for things to return to normal and assuming that what they know about their customers has not fundamentally changed. Many brand leaders, on the other hand, have found new avenues for attracting and retaining customers. They have become pioneers of a new way forward, by studying their customer’s needs and adapting what they do best to be more relevant and desired in today’s world.
Ruth Gaviria, most recently CMO at Elevate Prize foundation, once said: “When a brand goes that extra mile to understand the consumer experience when things are not going well and they’re able to show up and help solve that problem, that’s how you build the business.” While this holds true all the time, it is especially relevant right now.
Consumer preferences have evolved
Due to consumer needs that have emerged throughout the pandemic, we’re experiencing an accelerated evolution of consumer preferences and brand experiences. We saw how, with incredible speed, business transitioned from in-office to remote collaboration. We saw restaurants adopt technology to support curbside pickup. We saw live experiences of all kinds suddenly become more available and in demand online – movies, concerts, physical fitness, classes, conferences, healthcare, and so much more.
This was made possible by brand leaders who understood how to both survive and succeed when things changed. They sought understanding of how they could serve consumers in new ways to support their evolved set of needs. They tapped into technology solutions that enabled them to ramp up new capabilities and customer experiences. They met customers where they were, and they delivered.
Now, there’s no going backward. People have been introduced to new ways of doing things that are easier, more convenient, more enjoyable, and better suited to their evolved lifestyles. Research shows that there’s a high likelihood that many consumer preferences are not reverting. It’s clear that consumers expect these new and improved brand experiences to be available options going forward.
A study by Qualtrics XM reported that “Consumers want better experiences in 2022, and businesses are failing to respond – risking on average 9.5% of their revenue. It’s time to throw out the old business plans and try a different way of thinking.”
It goes on to explain that, “before 2021, customers might have been more tolerant of bad experiences – but in 2022, there won’t be any leeway for businesses that don’t meet expectations… With the cost of switching rapidly reaching zero, consumers are aware that if they can’t get what they want from one business – even one they’ve been loyal to – they can easily find another…it’s more vital than ever to tackle your customer experience gaps and understand how to deliver what your customers expect.”
Here are a few examples of consumer preferences that are most likely here to stay:
Where people shop, online or offline, is now linked to urgency and convenience, and retailers must have both options not only available but coordinated.
A study published by PYMNTS.com in September 2021 reported that 50% of all consumers say they are making more ‘buy now, get later’ purchases than they did prior to March 2020, and 42% also say that they would be more inclined to buy from brick-and-mortar stores if they could pay for their purchases online and pick them up via curbside the same day. The study reports that shopping preferences have fundamentally changed over the last 2 years, and it is now “less about choosing whether to buy products online or in stores and more about how shopping fits into consumers’ schedules.”
Restaurants – Outdoor dining & takeout
Restaurants have seen a significant shift in consumer preferences. There is now an increased desire to eat outdoors and an increased desire to take the food home – both putting pressure on how restaurants are expected to serve customers to remain competitive.
According to Euromonitor, “Businesses (restaurants) need to create their own outdoor oasis… Open-air structures and heating and illumination systems will pay off due to heightened demand for safe venues and the aesthetic that could continue attracting consumers.”
Simultaneously, restaurants owners are evolving their operations to serve a dramatic increase in drive-thru, pickup, and delivery orders. Some have been so caught off guard by this change in consumer preference, coupled with a labor shortage, that they’ve been forced to randomly close indoor dining rooms to prioritize serving non-dining room orders. Looking forward, they must monitor shifts in consumer preferences to stay ahead of these behaviors, which may or may not be here to stay.
Telehealth is another example where the adoption of new consumer behaviors is setting a new standard for care in the industry.
According to McKinsey & Company, telehealth utilization has stabilized at levels 38x higher than before the pandemic. About 40% of consumers said they plan to continue using telehealth, up from 11% before the pandemic. This means that healthcare providers will not only need to adapt their operations to support this growing way of serving patients, but they’ll also need to identify how to improve the experience so that patients keep coming back to their practice.
A path forward for any brand
Any consumer insights or brand development and growth plans from before, now need to be revisited given the scale of consumer preference changes that are occurring. This points to a heightened imperative for all brand leaders going forward: To seek deeper understanding of their consumers and adapt accordingly. Regardless of your resources or approach, now is the time to make curiosity about your customers and prospects – understanding of what makes them tick – an ongoing top priority.
Here are five consumer insights questions to guide your ongoing efforts:
- What underlying goals truly motivate your consumer?
- What is the evolved lifestyle context that your brand now exists in?
- What new experiences have people had that will pull them away from your brand?
- What unmet needs and desires can your brand uniquely serve?
- What should your Brand say or do to increase engagement, desire, and loyalty?
You can review changes in your customer data and behavior. You can conduct consumer research. You can tap into employees who are at the front line of the customer experience, such as retail store employees, call center reps, B2B account managers – anyone who interacts with customers can be responsible for reporting back on what customers are feeling and seeking.
It’s time to seek fresh consumer insights
Not long ago, gathering new consumer insights was an exercise in incremental learning. Now, it’s clear that brand leaders can’t rely on outdated insights. There’s an urgency to be curious about consumers’ lifestyles, motivations, unmet needs, and priorities, and to turn that curiosity into better brand experiences.
In the words of Gregg Heard, VP Brand Design at Sage, who’s also been a brand design leader at Phillips, AT&T, and 3M: “We all know strong brands that are out there – those strong brands that have these great experiences that they create that are largely emotional, they win the hearts and minds of their customer, and they have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Those great brand experiences don’t happen by accident – they are actively designed.”
Today, deeper consumer insights are a must-have to set a new foundation of consumer understanding, to be competitive, and to create brand experiences that will keep people coming back for more.
Cover image source: 愚木混株 cdd20