5 Important Learnings after a Year of COVID

April 12, 2021

One year ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. 

The word pandemic, first used in the 17th Century, comes from the Greek pan, meaning “all,” and demos, meaning people. For a disease to be classified a pandemic — as opposed to an epidemic — it must affect people across borders and regions.

And affect us it has — on all six inhabited continents.  Yet now, with the roll-out of numerous effective vaccines underway, many of us have begun to hope that a return to normal might be in the offing. 

Perhaps this is a good time to begin reflecting on what we’ve learned about ourselves during the past year and how the pandemic has changed us.  

Here at Streetbees, we’ve been tracking people’s thoughts and feelings during the pandemic using our COVID-19 Human Impact Tracker (HIT). In this post, we will discuss five key learnings that have emerged since the virus first appeared in our lives.

1. The virus has accelerated changes that were already underway. 

The word unprecedented won dictionary.com’s People’s Choice 2020 Word of the Year. Indeed, the virus brought a tsunami of unprecedented changes to our lives. But the seeds for many of these changes had been planted before the virus unleashed them.

Telecommuting — aka, working from home — is an obvious example. But the changes have been much more widespread than that. 

Take cashless transactions. Almost three-quarters of Bees have reported being wary of using cash because of the virus. But debit cards had already overtaken cash in popularity as far back as 2017, according to this BBC article. (The same article, published before the pandemic, goes on to describe a not-so-distant future when cash could become obsolete.)

D2C is another example of a pre-COVID trend exploding during the pandemic. Brands such as Warby Parker and Everlane showed companies what was possible with D2C almost a decade ago. But before COVID, D2C mostly appealed to younger consumers. During the pandemic, older consumers finally came on board — and many of them are here to stay. (For more about D2C’s growth during COVID, read here.)

2. Levels of fear change what people spend on.

It’s not only how people purchase goods that has changed, but which goods they prioritise. 

Fear is the driving factor behind this priority shift. 

Since early 2020, the HIT has been tracking how fearful people are feeling. As new COVID case numbers in a region surge, so does the fear index — or the percentage of people feeling afraid minus the percentage feeling unafraid.

The more afraid people are feeling, the less they tend to spend in discretionary categories. Demand drops for entertainment, for instance, as well as clothing and beauty products. 

At the same time, people spend much more on essentials such as food and medicine. 

As case numbers recede and people start feeling less threatened by the virus, the trend reverses. With the vaccine rollout well underway in many countries, Bees’ demand for clothing has hit the highest level since the HIT began tracking it — almost back to its pre-pandemic normal. 

3. Personal factors, from income to politics, have influenced the adjustments people have made.

Different groups of people have reacted in widely different ways to the pandemic. 

The different reactions stem from 5 key factors: age, income, household composition, personal impact, and level of trust in government. 

Streetbees has identified 4 behavioural adjustments people have made during the pandemic. These groups — or, as we like to think of them, consumer tribes — are Opportunists, Survivalists, Shielders, and Jugglers.

Opportunists are sceptical of what they read and hear about the virus. They’re more worried about their finances. 

Survivalists, on the other hand, are an anxious group — though their fears revolve more around work and money than disease and death. 

Shielders fear the virus. They follow the science and spend a lot on health and hygiene.

Jugglers are stuck between financial worries and virus fears. They are more likely to belong to lower-income and multi-generational households. Many of them have also continued to work throughout lockdown, such as in grocery stores.

Read more about these consumer tribes, and how brands can more effectively market to them, here.   

4. Some of the changes are permanent.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t eagerly looking forward to some kind of post-COVID normal. 

Yet Streetbees’ data reveal that a majority of people — 78%, in fact — intend to keep at least some of the behaviours they’ve developed as coping mechanisms.

Our Bees have reported working more from home, of course, as well as shopping more online — and they largely appreciate these changes to their routines. They’ve also been exercising and cooking at home, as opposed to going to the gym or eating out. Sure, they miss the socialising, but they’ve learned to enjoy doing these things alone as well.  

They’re worrying less about how they look and more about how they feel — both physically and mentally. For example, the HIT shows that, early in the pandemic, demand for beauty products dropped and has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

This is partly due to being stuck at home, and partly due to mask requirements. But Bees have used this time to learn new routines, with more emphasis on hygiene and skincare. They’ve come to feel more comfortable and confident about their natural appearance, and don’t seem eager to return to the old days, when appearance was a top priority. 

5. People expect brands to be partners in rebuilding.

2020 was not only a difficult year for consumers, but for brands as well. Beyond the economic hit caused by lockdown restrictions, some brands have struggled to find their voice in the pandemic. How do you market your goods and services when so many people are stuck at home, feeling fearful and alone? 

As an illustration of this struggle to adjust messaging, consider the kinds of holiday adverts big brands put out during last year’s holiday season. The most successful ones — such as this from Amazon — were arguably those that did not shy away from the sense of loss so many people were feeling. (Take a look here for our analysis of the 2020 holiday campaign season.)

One thing brands absolutely need to understand is that, as communities begin to emerge from the pandemic, consumers expect companies to serve as partners in rebuilding.

Purpose-driven marketing has been all the rage for quite some time — such that wise consumers have begun to grow suspicious. This doesn’t mean companies should move on from it, though. If anything, it’s time to double-down by supporting charitable causes and local businesses. 

And it’s time for brands to make sure their messages demonstrate empathy and communicate real values. Of course, this has always been the case — but now, at the (hopefully) tail end of a pandemic unlike anything most of us have experienced, consumers are exceptionally sensitive to the roles brands play in their lives.