The great pandemic of 2020 has wreaked havoc among even the most “prepared” of brands as most crisis manuals and risk mitigation strategies proved ineffective in responding to radical changes in consumer behaviors, purchasing habits, life priorities, and evolving sensibilities.
Many brands found themselves out of favor through no fault of their own, while others happened to be offering the right goods, at the right time, for the right price.
Shift in Consumer Behavior
For industries that had seen sales slowly decline for years, COVID-19 came in like a wrecking ball, quickly knocking down any remnants of their greatness. The entire fashion industry is a shining example of this, a sector that went from dizzying heights and turnover speed to a grinding halt. Bankruptcy filings, like Barneys in late 2019, foreshadowed the decline of fashion offering extravagant opulence pieces. Still, nobody could have foreseen that halting sales for just a few months would have forced fashion giants like Neiman Marcus, J.Crew, and Brooks Brothers to fall so deeply in the red to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
But while the work-from-home army stopped buying $300 pants fit for the office, they started purchasing comfy all-day wear items from brands like Lululemon and Band of Outsiders, whose online platforms were ready to satisfy virtual shoppers with user-friendly interfaces, easy to navigate sizing charts, and no-brainer return policies.
Shift in Brand Perception
E-commerce’s rate of adoption has been increasing steadily over the past decade. Yet, even the most reliable crystal ball wouldn’t have foreseen that in 2020 alone, US e-commerce growth jumped more than 30%, effectively accelerating the shift to online shopping by nearly two years.
Brands that had been preparing for their customers to increase online purchases were able to convert their brick-and-mortar stores into distribution centers. Brian Cornell, Target’s CEO, described the transformation as “placing our stores at the center of modern network design to deliver an unmatched combination of convenient fulfillment options.”
While even giants like Amazon struggled to keep up with the surging demand, a flock of tech startups, from Instacart to Drizzly, flourished by offering no-contact deliveries of groceries and alcohol. Once branded as a time-saving and convenient service, delivery apps have now become an essential service.
To a certain extent, being able to afford to have things delivered has become a new, unexpected sign of wealth. With so many jobs being downsized or furloughed, the added cost of delivery fees has quickly become outlandish. Not to mention: how do you calculate the appropriate tip to give someone who might have just risked their lives to get you groceries?
Yet, when the woke crowd started condemning the use of these apps for putting more and more delivery workers at risk, the vast majority of people kept cherishing delivery services because the truth is: fear of contagion will always trump fear of being shamed.
Shift in Empathy
The restaurant industry was possibly the most dramatically hit by the economic consequences of the shutdowns. We had to doom scroll through countless posts announcing the departure of beloved neighborhood joints and bars.
How did people react? With a new sense of empathy for the small business owners of the restaurant world. Refusing to accept a long-term future that didn’t include their beloved signature dishes, people started to buy gift cards, knowing they would likely never have a chance to redeem them, and even branded apparel.
Prominent food journalists like Helen Rosner encouraged their followers to do what they could to save their favorite establishments, knowing full well that it might not be enough. Even the legendary Florence Fabricant reported on the creation of an aggregate website where patrons could go to purchase merchandise to help support their favorite establishments.
Shift in Role Models
You might remember that towards the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a video featuring a group of celebrities singing “Imagine” went viral – and not for the good reasons. At a time when thousands of people were dying, losing loved ones, or losing their livelihoods, there was no emotional space for even remotely tolerating any attempt to “lighten the mood.”
A few neverending months later, while the virus was still ravaging through America, Kim Kardashian had the audacity of posting pictures of her birthday party, for which she flew her “closest inner circle” of about 30 people to a private island to celebrate. Alas, even her adoring fans weren’t enough to cover up such brazen tone-deafness, and the internet responded with a mix of outrage and mockery.
It appears that, at least for a brief moment in time, the COVID-19 pandemic restored our core values of community, shared resiliency, and empathy – rendering the branding utopia of lavish luxury immoral and despised.
Not all celebrities were reviled, however. The incomparable Dolly Parton made headlines throughout the year: from her support of Black Lives Matter to her $1 million donation for Covid research – she became even more universally adored.
As the rate of vaccination increases and we finally dare to hope for a return to normalcy, we can’t help but wonder which of the above shifts created but a wobble in the branding time-continuum, and which ones will result in a permanent evolution of how organizations decide to tell their stories.