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Consumer trends during The Great Reset: How do we want to move forward?

As governments and businesses talk about how to open back up after shelter-in-place orders, there’s a lot to consider—including perception. Surveys show that most people aren’t planning to go back to life as normal yet. And maybe not ever. COVID-19 has changed how we work, when we work, and what we want to do with our leisure time.

To get some perspective on what this post-COVID-19 world might look like, we turned to TrendWatching, a consumer trends firm. While the firm can’t predict the future, it has a steady finger on the pulse of what lies ahead.

Recently, TrendWatching released its 10 post-COVID trends, and we spoke with David Mattin, Evangelist at Large at TrendWatching, for some additional insight. Mattin is also the author of “New World Same Humans,” a weekly newsletter that comments on the big changes going on in the world, and he also sits on the World Economic Forums’ Global Future Council on Consumption.

Of course, some things can’t be predicted, but there’s often information available that can help us to react and plan ahead. “A part of thinking about this moment is thinking about what some of the deep-running trends were from before that are going to be accelerated by this moment in a way that’s lasting,” Mattin said.

"The Great Reset"

Though “New World Same Humans” was started pre-COVID-19, the newsletter has a precog sense about it. In version 9, Mattin uses a term I thought couldn’t be more relevant: The Great Reset.

“The Great Reset is more a set of questions than anything else,” said Mattin. We’ve been asked to stay home, to only leave our houses for essential business, to stop going out to eat, being social with others in person, and to stop seeing anyone other than those in our own household. Whether we like it or not, we’ve been forced into a long moment of reflection.

Of course, some things can't be predicted, but there's often information available that can help us to react and plan ahead.

We’re looking back on old behaviors while also building new habits. Change is always uncomfortable and difficult, but now that our lives have changed, we have to ask ourselves: Do we want to go back?

“We know at some point that these lockdowns are going to be lifted and we’re going to rev back up again, but do we have to return to the same old patterns, the same old ways of life, and the same economic modes that we were in before?” he asks.

Mattin used flight as an example of something we might reconsider during The Great Reset, as well as other human activities that affect the climate.

Change is always uncomfortable and difficult, but now that our lives have changed, we have to ask ourselves: Do we want to go back?

“No one is able to fly anywhere at the moment. So when this is all over, should we and do we want to, and can we afford to slam back into, all flying around the planet in exactly the way we did before this?” he said.

This pause in activity offers a chance to take a breath and reflect on whether and how we’re serving ourselves and the planet in the best way possible. We have the opportunity to use this time to reset ourselves, our work, and our habits—and a few of these key trends might help businesses to envision the way forward.

[Related read: Why corporate sustainability is a mainstay in 2020 and beyond]

Virtual experience economy

One of the trends predicted to continue or to accelerate in the post-COVID world is the virtual experience economy. For decades, we’ve moved away from material goods as status-markers and toward experiences. The things we’ve done and the places we’ve visited are often more important to our status than the things we own.

The status of virtual experiences has been growing in recent years and the fact that we now can’t leave our homes is supercharging this trend. Virtual experiences started off as a novelty, but as they become more immersive, and more “real,” they’re gaining mainstream attention and the resistance to the “realness” of these experiences is falling away.

We have the opportunity to use this time to reset ourselves, our work, and our habits—and a few of these key trends might help businesses to envision the way forward. 

Version 1.0 of virtual space was used for gaining information. Version 2.0 was all about entertainment. We’re now entering 3.0, which will be the domain of the meaningful experience.

“Because of the maturing of certain technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, experiences in virtual worlds are becoming so real and so compelling to people that they’re going to become status-worthy in their own right,” Mattin said.

The status-worthiness of virtual events means that they’re going to be seen not as an almost-as-good event, but equal to in-person events. Ten years ago, an event inside a video game would have been considered a novelty, not something you’d brag to your friends about. And yet, people are now socializing and even hosting weddings in Animal Crossing. It’s a little haven of normalcy and escape inside a virtual landscape.

In 2019, 10 million people attended a live concert inside Fortnite. During the DJ Marshmello concert, weapons were disabled and players could dance, fly above the stage, and play with beach balls. And then, on April 23, 2020, 12 million people tuned in for a 10-minute Travis Scott concert within Fortnite. The numbers are growing, interest is gathering.

The status-worthiness of virtual events means that they’re going to be seen not as an almost-as-good event, but equal to in-person events.

While much of the world is sheltering in place, there’s been an uptick in the number of virtual experiences on offer. Museums are hosting virtual tours, you can ‘visit’ the Faroe Islands while controlling a live person as they stroll the countryside, and get your ocean fix via live webcam of beaches from around the world. We’re learning that it’s possible to travel the world and experience new things without ever leaving our couches.

[Related read: Therapy, like everything else, has moved online. And that’s a good thing]

Glass box brands and employee burnout

Likely, you’ve already noticed that many brands have shifted their advertising to convey that they understand how difficult this time is, promising to keep your food clean, and trusting you’ll be soothed by soft piano music.

This messaging conveys the truth—it is a hard time—but businesses need to react authentically. “Any brand with any sense whatsoever should be able to see that in this moment, they have to be respectful of people and the difficulties that are attached to this moment,” Mattin said. “To seek to be authentic and sincere to help people through it. Be people-to-people, then be a big business or corporation.”

Battling the burnout
Pre-COVID, the world we were living and working in was non-stop. That still may be true: messages arrive at all hours of the day, many of us are available to work at any moment simply by pulling out our devices, and we each wade through thousands of demands on our attention at any given moment.

A Deloitte survey found that 77 percent of workers have felt burnout at their current job. The difference is that right now consumers have an expanded awareness of the detriments of burnout and are hyper-aware of how companies are treating their employees.

"Any brand with any sense whatsoever should be able to see that in this moment, they have to be respectful of people and the difficulties that are attached to this moment. To seek to be authentic and sincere to help people through it. Be people-to-people, then be a big business or corporation." - David Mattin

The rise of “glass box brands”
“Glass box brands” is a term used by TrendWatching to describe the way consumers look at and examine brands. Companies are no longer black boxes. “There’s something crucial to understand about marketing and brands today, and that’s that we live in a very transparent world now. A connected world is a very transparent world,” Mattin said.

Part of being a transparent company is realizing that your internal culture is now part of your public-facing brand. Consumers are watching, listening, and investigating how companies are treating employees and relating it to how they want to be treated. An internal culture rife with burnout, may cause consumers to turn away from your brand.

[Related read: Build a strong company culture by leading with EQ]

And, don’t think you can hide it. “If there’s a big disconnect between the truth of your internal culture and the brand that you’re trying to project, it will be exposed—much faster than it once would have been,” Mattin said.

If you want to attract more consumers, share with them what you’re doing for your people. And this starts by actually building a strong, empathetic culture.

“It has to be true and sincere and done with authenticity. You really have to do something for your own people,” Mattin said. And then, by the way, you can then turn that into a very compelling story to tell the outside world about what you’re doing.”

If you want to attract more consumers, share with them what you’re doing for your people. And this starts by actually building a strong, empathetic culture.

How consumers are going to react
“This is a real moment for the glass box trend to accelerate,” Mattin said. “Especially when it comes to burnout and psychological well-being. It’s going to be difficult for brands to project this image of ‘we care’ if they screwed over their own people. The posts we’re going to get after this about how brands responded is going to be endless.”

Already, consumers are tracking how companies reacted with websites such as Did They Help? When consumers learn about your internal culture, they’re going to react emotionally and empathetically. And that can be a good thing or a bad thing for your brand, depending on how you’ve responded.

“If you just do something great for your internal culture, helping people through the burnout and stress of this moment, that is far more powerful as a message of ‘who we are as a brand and what we believe’ than anything you go out and say,” Mattin said. “In 2020, talk is cheap and the world is full of white noise, and consumers are very good at tuning it out.”

When consumers learn about your internal culture, they’re going to react emotionally and empathetically. And that can be a good thing or a bad thing for your brand, depending on how you’ve responded.

In recent years, some big names have popped up in the news for their internal culture. Susan Fowler blew the whistle on Uber for an internal culture rife with sexism, while the warehouse workers of Amazon banded together to reveal just how little protection they were being offered in the wake of the virus’ outbreak. Some of these big names might be protected by a “too big to fail” status, but they also need to be aware that consumers have the ability to choose where they spend their money.

[Related read: Business isn’t always about commerce; it’s also about community]

Open source solutions

An underlying trend to the glass box brands is that consumers and businesses are currently questioning the purpose of a company. For the past couple of decades, the purpose of a company has been to make money for shareholders. That’s starting to change.

“One way you can really show you care about making the world a better place and that you’re doing something about it is to think about a big shared challenge that your expertise and your resources put you in a position to solve or contribute to,” Mattin said.

The crucial step here: open source the solution. “If a business is to be sustainable in the 21st century, it needs to mean something, to do more than just make money,” he said. “It has to help make the world better for all of us. Open source solutions are one way to do that.”

“One way you can really show you care about making the world a better place and that you’re doing something about it is to think about a big shared challenge that your expertise and your resources put you in a position to solve or contribute to.” - David Mattin

Not only do open source solutions make the world a better place, which is just the right thing to do, but it’s also “enlightened self-interest,” according to Mattin. Once you create the solution and allow everyone to access it (including your competitors!) you get to tell the story.

There are a number of examples. One of the most famous examples is Volvo and the 3-point seatbelt, which is still the seatbelt we use today.

And right now there are a number of companies working on sharing their technology so that others can use it in similar or other innovative ways. Most notably, there’s Allbirds and the company’s sustainable foam, the recipe for which they sent to Amazon, recommending that Amazon use it to make its knockoff Allbirds more sustainable. McDonalds and Starbucks have also teamed up to create a sustainable solution to disposable cups.

[Related read: Marketing in a crisis looks different today than in the past]

We have to change

Right now, we may still be in crisis mode, and there remains a lot of uncertainty. Consumers will be looking to brands and businesses to do their part to help put our world back together—not just the way it was, but even better than it was before.

Some of the ways companies can act now is by evaluating internal culture and taking steps to solve the problems closest at hand, and then offering up resources to help the larger community, and maybe also to explore new ways of connecting.