Opinion: COVID-19 will change consumerism forever
There’s no question that COVID-19 will transform the world; we might never return to life as it was. For the first time in my memory, we’re not in a situation where change is coming—it’s here. And consumer brands might face the whiplash of this shift more quickly than any other group.
As far back as I can remember during my time in advertising, we told clients that the world is changing and that they need to change with it—or be left behind. That they will see new competitors from tertiary categories, new technologies, new mediums—all leading to new consumer needs not as clear as in the past. We have continually pushed to find elasticity in offerings, to be as relevant as possible and to seek out new markets and optimize the existing. It has always been our job to be not just partners in communication, but to be strategic partners in optimization of consumption at all levels.
But no marketer could ever have imagined how expedited and acute these changes would become through the pervasiveness of COVID-19. And while we’re rightly busy grappling with the virus’ impact on our healthcare system and its devastating economic implications, given what I do for a living I have to ask myself: How will this change our overarching idea of consumerism?
Culturally we find ourselves at a crossroads. Where we once were consumers, we are now connectors and protectors—trying to determine how to sustain our livelihoods. We are worried about and in constant communication with our loved ones who are sequestered by themselves; we fear for their health and for their emotional well-being. We are evangelists of the simplest of practices—staying at home and washing our hands—behaviors that seem so commonplace until they are mandated.
It’s even stranger to consider what’s happening on our social media platforms. Instagram until two weeks ago was a black hole of consumerism, a place where you could never have enough to keep up with the Joneses—not enough things, not enough meals out and certainly never enough followers. Today, in this “shelter in place” world, we find ourselves in a position where—if we’re very lucky—we have what we need and that’s enough. If we’re fortunate, we’re able to finally experiment with making sourdough loaves to feed our families or have a guitar to strum while they sing along. At least, that’s what my Instagram feed tells me.
While the division of wealth and privilege is still quite clear as I scroll, the dichotomy of subject matter and purpose of platform is not lost on me. Instagram and other social media channels innately romanticize all. But when you dig into the purpose of the activities we’re capturing while we’re stuck at home during this crisis, they’re about the protection of our communities, the sustainability of our families’ abilities to support ourselves and ultimately the greater good. We’re planting victory gardens; we’re sewing masks for our healthcare workers on the front lines; and we’re leaving a few eggs on our neighbors' doorstep when they run out. As the popular meme making the rounds declares: This is wartime and the enemy is the virus. We will overcome it, but the trauma will remain.
We are facing an uphill battle on the trauma inflicted upon us all: lives lost, devastation of healthcare systems all across the world, coping as best they can with what they have. The overnight loss of income and ability to support your family. The enormous sense of loss at not being able to hug a loved one. Trauma like this pervades our subconscious for generations.
This is why I believe that March 2020 marks the end of consumerism as we’ve come to know it. We won’t forget the new practices that helped us through the crisis. “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) may be our country’s motto, but if these last few weeks have taught us anything it’s that it just takes one to protect the many. Today we become aware through the pervasive spread of this virus just how strong our individual actions can be. That staying home is an effort in saving lives. Once we emerge from this, think about transferring that notion to buying power. Imagine the power of individual action, and the strength it gives every single dollar spent.
What does this mean for brands? It means that they just got a new competitor from a tertiary category: community. How brands choose to use that information is up to them, but my recommendation is that they embrace and react to what consumers will be asking themselves: Why am I spending this dollar? Who am I spending it with? And, what greater good will it serve? It is my belief that only then will any loyalty be gained in this new dawn of consumerism.