Breaking the habit.

How will our habits be impacted after the lockdown?

This blog is a summary of our four part series – Force of Habit: Brands Beyond Lockdown, which goes live mid-May as four-part blog series.

Overnight, we’ve lost our regular routines – our daily coffees, weekly shops, Friday bacon butties and weekend parkruns.

Of course the lockdown has forced us to change our habits temporarily. But might a prolonged break from the norm mean we never go back to them?

Will consumers snap right back into step, or will we reappraise how we eat, shop, exercise and prioritise our spending for the longer term? And how can brands prepare for the new normal? Just how will everyday habits will be impacted after the lockdown?

Behavioural scientists will tell you 90% or more of what we do is just habit.

So what happens when we can’t just do what we normally do? Our everyday habits aren’t available to us in this lockdown. Almost everything regular and patterned about our lives has been turned on its head.

This is the biggest disruption of consumer behaviour most of us have ever known, or will know.

In one sense it’s a chance to reset our defaults, to clear the cache of all our unconscious, automatic behaviours, and consider about the choices we normally autopilot through.

But we’ve also quickly adapted – falling into new routines for eating, working, home-schooling, caffeinating, socialising, exercising and shopping. The novelty’s yet to wear off, so it’s too early to say which of these new behaviours will stick, and which old habits we’ll snap straight back to given the chance.

And that’s make or break stuff for the brands that rely on our routines – like coffee shops, gyms, supermarkets, pubs.

What if we embrace our independent exercise routines, and don’t fancy going back to wiping down the gym equipment?

What if a latte and a croissant on the morning commute no longer seems necessary (or the commute itself is no more)? What if empty shelves drive us to discover and embrace other (even preferable) ways to buy – farm shops, the milk round, veg boxes, online, local stores?

What seems certain is that some of the ‘new’ is here to stay. This seems likely to be a breakthrough for home-working and video-meetings, for instance.

Even the most reluctant employers have had to embrace that reality. But think of all the ripples this phenomenon sends through transport, IT, commercial real estate, insurance. Old assumptions will give way to new realities, and new business models will arise.

A few brands can perhaps count on simply bouncing back. The pent-up demand remains, the old habits will simply return once the constraints are removed. (Greggs springs to mind.)

But for most businesses, the lockdown is either a threat, an opportunity, or both.

The opportunity

There are businesses gaining customers from the lockdown. In which case, how can those gains be retained and consolidated as the new habit?

Gaining – Businesses that weren’t the default behaviour before, but who can offer something valuable and different now. A weekly grocery shop has always been a pretty bad way to keep the house stocked. The once antiquated milk-round now suddenly looks like a smart start-up for delivering essentials at the rate we actually get through them.

Challenging – Market leaders are often a convenient, unconscious choice rather than the best – or even deliberate – choice. In disrupted supply, the rest of the market has a chance to shine. Challengers in FMCG categories might stand to benefit from their market leader’s loss of default status. Can they capitalise?

Emerging – Our newly formed routines will offer brands a chance to resonate with consumers they couldn’t previously reach. Our new exercise behaviours take us away from the major brands that dominated team sports, and might redirect the direct-debit to the gym to new spending. Our new entertainment and social behaviours will offer new media and branding opportunities.

The threat

Lost – Many businesses were built on habits that aren’t possible during lockdown. Coffee shops find themselves here. How can they reconnect with long-lost customers? Retail brands will fall back on their local marketing playbooks: new store openings, refits, underperforming stores. But this isn’t about recovering trade lost to competitors, but restoring the whole habit.

Substituted – When a brand’s shelf space is empty, shoppers (and warehouse pickers) will reach for the natural substitute. What if the compromise becomes a habit?

Replaced – Gyms, cinemas and pubs will be fearful that the share of wallet that came their way is now going to directly competitive behaviours – home exercise, streaming services, video-meetups. This is not simply a question of restoring the old habits, but breaking the new ones.

So the question is how can brands plan for the new normal? 

The answers lie in behavioural science. Applying its scientific insights into how habits form and how they can be changed.

The brands that emerge strongest in the aftermath of the lockdown will be those that have observed how patterns have changed, adapted to accommodate or capitalise, and adopted strategies rooted in behavioural science.

How will your customers habits be impacted after the lockdown? If you have a challenge we could help with, get in touch.

Steve Brunt Planning Director

By Steve Brunt

Planning Director