Blog Post

It’s Too Soon To Talk “New Normal”

Julia Eisenberg 

We’re now three months into the global pandemic, and reading my LinkedIn feed, it seems as if the entire insights industry is desperately trying to figure out what the “new normal” looks like in a post-COVID-19 world. It’s not surprising. After virtually every big societal event, our industry has raced to define the “new normal” and make recommendations to clients on how to be successful in the new consumer environment.

But with COVID-19, trying to define a “new normal” is premature to the point of being a fool’s errand. Why do we believe that?

We created a qualitative lean community at the start of the pandemic in order to track its effects on consumers and have been interacting daily with a highly-engaged panel of people across the US for the past eight weeks. Through our community, we have been able to capture feedback from qualitative exercises, including what the lock-down lifestyle looks and feels like.

If there’s one thing that is extremely clear from our COVID-19 panel it’s that the emergence of a “new normal” is nowhere in sight. The reality is that people across the country are still very much in a state of emotional shock. They remain fearful for their safety and that of their loved ones almost as much as they did at the very beginning of the crisis. Most believe that the country is going through an economic and societal disruption as big as the 2008 financial crisis or even the Great Depression.

It’s as emotionally overwhelming as 9/11, but with COVID-19, there’s no sense that the situation is over. Instead, people are reacting to it as an unfolding situation with an uncertain future. We feel like we did after the first plane hit the World Trade Center and before we knew the attack was over.

People who occupied the middle class pre-COVID-19 have been almost instantly dropped into a situation where they genuinely fear they will be unable to put food in their mouths in the coming months. COVID-19 has knocked them at least two rungs down Maslow’s hierarchy in a way they never expected. People with comfortable work-from-home jobs fear that COVID-19’s effects on the economy could still threaten their livelihood. Most are still very much distracted by the constant background noise of worry and unable to focus and get work done.

“Seeing people just rushing into the grocery stores and buying up all of the food, and knowing that I had no money for another 11 days when I get paid…and that I might not have food…that made this very real for me.”

Life plans and vacation plans alike have been put into a holding pattern with an undefined end. Many participants have now hesitantly conceded that their summer getaway is not possible, and it and the rest of their plans are slipping into a timeframe uncomfortably defined as “when this plague is finally over.”

And we haven’t even mentioned people like healthcare workers, people who have lost their jobs, and people who’ve actually been infected or seen friends personally suffer through a COVID-19 infection.

So what does that mean for the insights industry and the consumer economy our work informs?

Until enough perspective and stability returns, there’s no “new normal” to understand and address. The best we can do is accept that we’re in flux. Stay in close contact with your consumers so you understand their experience well enough to know how your company’s products and services can help them with the needs they have RIGHT NOW. Invest in frequent insight touch points with your consumers so you can track and understand what your consumers are currently experiencing.

There are already plenty of examples of businesses that have spotted short-term consumer needs and successfully adjusted their businesses to fulfill them. Examples include already-beleaguered department stores revamping their websites to enable “buy online, pickup at the curb” and turning their parking lots into highly efficient, safe pickup zones. If our panel is any indication, people are flocking to these services and often building new buying behaviors that are likely to stick around after COVID-19 is under control.

Another notable example is QSR-chain Portillo’s. Portillo’s understood that people are stuck at home, bored with home-cooked food and badly in need of a “safe” trip out. But with their dine-in stores shut down, they had to change their approach to business quickly to meet consumers where they currently are. Their answer? Train in-store dining personnel in order to dramatically increase the speed of their drive-thru service, use the unused dining space to create room for a full staff to work while observing safe distancing, and turn their parking lot into what often looks like an old-style drive-in restaurant where people can enjoy their meals in the safety of their cars.

The examples of rapid adaptation based on a current understanding of consumer needs are appearing everywhere like bright spots of innovation on a bleak background. So let’s stop waiting for a “new normal” to appear and accept that we’re in a dynamic situation that strongly favors companies and brands that have a rock-solid understanding of their audiences’ realities and needs as they evolve.