Changes in consumer behaviour have unexpected effects on marketers

Nearly 50 years ago, during the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Edward Lorenz posed a question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” Now recognized as part of chaos theory, Lorenz’s point was that a small change can be magnified as it spreads. Covid is hardly a small change, but as marketers, we need to look closely at its component parts to understand how they are being magnified and affecting markets.

Working from home, or WFH – now so ubiquitous – has significantly boosted online sales. That dynamic has been clear enough. But consider other, less obvious, implications. One is that time spent commuting has, for millions, been done away with. My own daily commute used to take about an hour – it’s now a 30-second walk through my garden to my shed-cum-office (a little longer if I stop to admire the flowers). Public transport has been hit hard; so, too, on-the-go food and drink, with city-centre coffee shops seeing business fade. In a bid to bring customers back, some chains are offering amazing deals: UK-based sandwich shop Pret a Manger has launched a £20-a-month subscription deal, offering up to five drinks a day (it normally sells a single latte for over £2). The innovation is to be applauded, and from a brand perspective, it has certainly made a splash: the launch won national news headlines. But consider the other side of the coin. With customers fleeing city centres and cafés left empty, where are the new go-to drinks and snacks for homeworkers? How are marketers capturing this potential demand?

One positive impact of WFH (for some at least) is increased disposable income. The question for marketers is, “What will that money be spent on?” WFH means people have to find suitable space to work. It’s an enormous opportunity for broadband suppliers, electronics companies and furniture retailers, as people decide they need a faster connection, new software or hardware, and somewhere better to sit. The home office boom is under way – and so too a boom in DIY home improvements, as people have more time to notice jobs around the house that need done.

What about clothing? Sales of ties, suits, jackets and tights were already falling, but it seems WFH has prompted further dressing-down. What is the opportunity for the new office-wear, and who is going to provide it? And what of offices? How much space firms actually need is a major boardroom topic and it will have an impact on the land management, construction and building maintenance industries, among others.

As WFH exploded in use, I was hopeful that another benefit would relate to the role of women in work, in so far as remote working offers more freedom about when work is done. Yet it seems this was wishful thinking. It has been reported that not only were women disproportionately more likely to be made redundant early in the pandemic – 80% more, according to McKinsey – but, according to research from LinkedIn, they have also been hired less. Female hires reached a low point of 41.5% in April, before recovering to 45.2 per cent in July.

The tornado is blowing good and bad in all our lives. Marketers need to think deeply about the implications – the threats and the opportunities. They usually stretch far beyond what is first apparent. We need to think now about the needs
of a generation who are learning to work from home today, and may well keep doing so in the long term.

Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers