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A New Kind Of Customer Connect

Brands are rediscovering an unlikely source for repeatable success in the post-Covid era

February 2021     |     1470 words     |     6-minute read

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The start of the pandemic and swift lockdown saw people scramble for essentials, and amidst the chaos ‘survival of the fittest’ became evident.

Store aisles and online platforms were besieged with people over-ordering. In such a confused environ, acts of kindness, whether by individuals or organisations, would have appeared plainly illogical.

Yet, astonishing acts of kindness and caring abounded, fuelled with a deep desire to help each other. Why, at a time when everyone should have focused on feathering their own nests, did humankind resort to selfless generosity? Partly because we are an incredibly adaptive species that intuitively knows what’s good for us.

This adaptive excellence comes to the fore dramatically, especially during times of distress. Our ability to perceive external and intrinsic changes and adjust rapidly allows us to morph our habits and beliefs to match the brave new world. But what have been the most elemental of these changes?

Seismic shifts in the consumer landscape

Swamped by emotions, emanating from extreme fear and paranoia to a quest for meaning in life and an incredible compassion, people have clearly been overwhelmed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to renowned author David Kessler this tidal wave of emotions creates a sense of collective grief. Aggravated by the loss of normalcy, a fear of economic turmoil, and the ebbing away of our normal way of life, we are all immersed in different stages of grieving. As we process this grief, our beliefs and attitudes have altered in ways that every brand needs to take cognisance of in the post-Covid world. It will be necessary for brands to respond to the cognitive, physical and emotional changes cascading across the consumer landscape.

Protection: During a global health crisis that has raged through developed and developing economies, afflicting the affluent and impoverished alike, the value of wellness has attained new heights. A greater focus on healthy living, health tracking and proactive health maintenance has taken precedence. Kantar’s World Panel data indicates that since the outbreak of the pandemic, 91% of consumers are washing their hands more often and 47% are cleaning more often.

Purpose: Inexplicable disequilibrium and quaking uncertainty has deeply eroded consumers’ confidence and consumption spend. The trust factor in consumption has become more ingrained than ever before. Consequently, 47% agree they are buying branded products more often these days, while 63% are looking more closely at the product’s point of origin before purchasing.

Connectivity: The need to connect and stay connected has led to a quantum stride towards digital acceleration across all societal strata. The surge has meant that brands and consumers now have firmly established digital interaction as a viable alternative to physical engagement, which until a year ago was viewed as a lesser alternative. Already 34% consumers have used some form of e-consultation, while 33% have enrolled for an online course. Importantly, 29% downloaded a tele-commuting/conferencing service/app, underscoring an important threshold to change societal norms around digitally enabled interfacing.

Comfort: At a time when everything seems fraught with the prospect of existential danger, the need for psychological and physical comfort has acquired a sudden desirability. Whether it is the solace derived from hygienic packaging and delivery or reaching out to resolve product issues in a contactless manner — brands that can deliver mental peace and physical ease are being considered prized partners in people’s daily lives.

Adaptive behaviours are embedding themselves in people’s everyday lives. Behaviourally, there is an accent on participatory experiences and a veering towards routine tasks as a form of activity whether it is a new-found appreciation for home cooked food, or rediscovering the joy of family time, or the gratitude for being able to connect with friends. The home is the new venue for cocooning rather than a transient pit stop between two workdays.

Equally, anxieties around digital tasks, pertaining to purchasing and paying are becoming second nature. Similarly, a churning of the shopping basket, along with attention to home finances, has seen a shift towards more mindful choices that mix branded products with alternatives offering more value. In fact, in tandem is the recalibration of what items are essential versus those considered as indulgences. Hardly surprising, categories like organic food, supplements and wifi are an integral part of shopping lists for consumers who might have otherwise thought of them as optional.

Reinterpreting consumer needs for a deeper connect

As consumers transition to the next normal, how can brands ease this journey by becoming considerate companions? The answer, perhaps, lies in looking at the kind of rituals people conduct to cope with grief and personal loss. Ancient cultures across the world used rituals like prayers and feeding the poor to relieve negative feelings and instill a sense of composure in a difficult situation. What can brands learn from these acts? Perhaps, that easing emotional and psychological stress during times of difficulty lies in engaging with people in a manner that serves their functional and emotional needs all at once. There are various ways of doing this.

Calendarised engagement: Following the strict lockdown in the wake of the pandemic, commercial vehicles (CV) operators and their drivers faced several hardships as many trucks were stranded on the highways. At such a time, Tata Motors’ CV business unit engaged with its channel partners to understand their issues; the technicians who braved the odds to resolve breakdowns were awarded with free insurance cover, as true Covid warriors.

Information nuggets: Global heavy equipment brand Caterpillar instituted the 'Built for It' campaign in 2019, to make the Cat® brand more human, more approachable and more relevant. To achieve this, it created ‘thought leadership’ to provide its customers the information they need to become better at their jobs. As an industry leader in construction equipment, it democratised the sharing of its knowledge with a generosity that binds its present and potential customers to it.

Subscription clubs: As the founder of his eponymous agricultural and construction company, John Deere created and distributed a printed magazine for farmers in 1865 called The Furrow. Deere leveraged The Furrow, not to sell John Deere equipment directly (like a catalogue would do) but to educate farmers on new technology and how to use it to become more successful business owners and farmers. This has created a community of interest that has lasted for more than a century and fosters a sense of ‘being in it together’ during crises.

Community connect: Closer home, Rallis started the ‘Rallis Krishi Samadhan’ for India’s farming community under the ‘SamrudhKrishi’ initiative, a unique agro-advisory programme. Under it, well-trained agriculture staff provide customised recommendations to farmers for their entire crop cycle. This connect not only establishes a strong relationship with farmers but also becomes the first port of call during crisis as well as a sensing mechanism for new ways to serve the company’s customers.

Collaborative continuity: Shopping for essentials like food and grocery is an important routine that allows people to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their lives. With supply chains disrupted in the lockdown, Star Bazaar, the Tata group’s grocery chain, collaborated with other group retail entities to deploy personnel for continuity of business. Demonstrating incredible agility, Star’s leadership team also accelerated expansion of its omnichannel offerings with ‘Click and Collect’, StarQuik app, ‘Star on Wheels’ and ‘Society Ordering’ in a matter of weeks.

Ritual resurgence

Professor Francesco Gino of Harvard Business School and her colleagues mention the power of rituals in restoring a sense of control during crises. Participants who were directed to reflect on past rituals or assigned to complete novel rituals after experiencing losses reported lower levels of grief. Increased feelings of control after rituals created the link between use of rituals and reduced grief following losses, and the benefits of rituals accrued not only to individuals who professed a belief in their effectiveness but also to those who did not.

Customer-centric brands thus have clearly learnt an invaluable lesson that success in the post-pandemic world will be more readily attainable with acts of ritual kindness that reinvent their contract with consumers and the society at large. Demonstrable empathy with perceptible enactment of strategies, embedding kindness at their core, will help brands trump over just catchy sloganeering.

From an evolutionary standpoint, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but this is only half the picture. Insightful findings, however, reveal altruistic groups clearly win over selfish groups. At the Tata group, the manner in which our brands from disparate sectors came together to serve their customers is a model that is more likely to withstand the vagaries of time and natural catastrophes. Ultimately, whether consumers consider you ‘kind’ as a brand will play an integral role in determining what kind of brand you become.

Author Adrian Terron is head, Customer Centricity group, Tata Sons; and Kavita Mahto is general manager, Customer Centricity group, Tata Sons.

With inputs from Kavita Mahto.

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