What Australian companies can learn from the GFC to inform how they respond to COVID-19

Allan Dib
By Allan Dib | 24 April 2020
Allan Dib

As the COVID-19 curve flattens in Australia, and there is talk about easing restrictions, companies need to start thinking about what the future holds for their brands.

The road to recovery will be a long one. Nobody knows what the new normal is going to be. But we know it will take change and adjustment for those who will thrive.

The literature varies on how long it takes to develop a new habit; some say 21 days others say 66 days. Whatever time frame you chose to believe, by the time we emerge from this crisis, Australian’s are going to have new habits, attitudes, behaviours and influencers. Not every new behaviour Australians have learned during this period will stick, but some will.

This means your customer before the crisis is not going to be the same customer when we come out of this crisis.

It has been a long time since Australia has experienced an economic crisis such as the one that is unfolding in the wake of COVID-19. But the rest of the world has endured big economic shocks, in particular the USA. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) changed Americans. American consumer post-GFC were very different from the American consumer pre-GFC. They had different shopping behaviours, their loyalty to brands changed, and most importantly, their values changed.

While the impacts on people will be different for COIVD-19 than were for the GFC, the processes required to understand how companies will need to adapt in the future are similar.

I was working in NYC during the post GFC period and worked with many clients to help them understand the "new American" and how to engage their customers in what became the new normal. One thing that became clear was that the American companies that thrived post-GFC went through a period of reflection and review to understand how their company (and brands) needed to fit into the worlds of their customers. This reflection period allowed them to recalibrate their strategies and implement significant changes to drive growth.

What you can expect coming out of the COVID crises is similar to any strategic planning process

  1. A new or revised segmentation (your audience has changed)
  2. An altered articulation of your brand (brand expectations will have changed)
  3. A revised media strategy (they have discovered new media, new influencers)
  4. An updated creative brief (to reflect your new brand articulation)
  5. A greater emphasis on community (they have connected with their community in a new way)
  6. Corporate/brand relevance will be more important (Australians want companies and brands to be part of the solution. )

Some considerations to keep in mind -

Companies need to understand the worlds of Australians holistically
The change Australians are experiencing is being influenced, mostly, by events outside your brand's category dynamics. It is even more essential to use divergent thinking to understand your audiences holistically as “Australians” not just as consumers to capture the changes in their world. Once you know them as people, you can explore their category behaviour and attitudes, and connect these insights to the broader changes in their world.

Timing is everything -companies need to let the crisis settle

Do it too early, and you are acting on fads (not long terms trends), wait too long, and you risk being left behind by your competitors. The right time will be when the majority of the restrictions are
lifted plus one buying cycle for your category. This will allow consumers the first opportunity to make buying decisions in their “new” normal.

Companies needed to innovate and capture better data through sound methodologies that incorporate multiple lenses
These behaviours and attitudes are new, and consumers are not familiar with them enough for traditional research techniques. Research and data that allows you to observe their behaviour and attitude (e.g. social listening, ethnography, Google trends) will give a better insight into their world. 

There is an opportunity for companies to be relevant by playing a more meaningful role in consumers lives

The GFC was a significant drive in the growth of purpose-driven marketing in the USA. COVID-19 comes on the tail of one of the worst bushfire seasons Australia has ever experienced. During both of these crises, some brands have stepped up to help solve problems that the government could not do on its own. Companies should find ways to continue to do this authentically.

Will Australians continue to cook at home, will pantries stay full, will the bonds with our neighbours remain strong – we are not ready to make these predictions but it’s clear companies are going to need to plan and budget for intense strategic work before the year is out.

Allan Dib, strategist and champion of consumer centricity


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