What lies beneath: The big subconscious shakeup of 2020

Mary Winter
By Mary Winter | 4 August 2020
Mary Winter

COVID-19 has shifted people from autopilot thinking which is providing an opportunity for brands to connect in ways they previously hadn’t, says Mary Winter.

In 2019, many of us were on autopilot. We went about our lives routed in routine making little decisions such as the brands we shopped with or the products we purchased with little change or thought as to why.

In comes a year of cataclysmic events: mega-bushfires, a pandemic and a recession.

Suddenly, everything is up for grabs.

Behavioural Economics has taught us that we have two modes of thinking: System One and System Two. System Two is the rational, conscious mode. It is slow, deliberate, reasoned and requires effort, time and patience. System One is the irrational and unconscious part of our mind. It’s fast and intuitive.

Most of our everyday decisions around brands and purchases are made in System One ‘no- brainer’ mode. We don’t have unlimited capacity to process information and so it’s much easier to switch off, hand over to System One and, without even thinking, respond subconsciously to colours, shapes, previous experiences, cognitive biases and symbolism.

Right now, people have had cause to distrust their everyday worlds, focus on mundane things more consciously and reassess the little things in life.
Observations and analysis of Australian culture is showing us that decisions previously left to ‘automatic pilot’ may be becoming more conscious. In short, a time of change means a shake-up of the subconscious mind.

COVID-19 has ‘woken us up’ in a number of areas.

Processes and journeys
People have become alert to concepts such as supply chains in manufacturing and started imagining the journeys products take. Security and hygiene have moved from a trusted subconscious part of the mind to being something people think about in System Two because of safety. Consumers were happy to go with romanticised versions of production last year, but now, it’s not that simple.

For marketers, the question is whether corporate brand needs to be dimensionalised and communicated instead of being neglected in the background. Would your brand benefit from exposing and discussing the inner workings and product journeys because they are compliant and ethical?

The environment
The environment has been on many people’s agenda for a long time but COVID-19 and the bushfires have heightened this. The truth was always there but it has been exposed like never before.

Fearing for our lives and the lives of those we love, sensing that we could do others harm, has made us yearn for a safer more secure world and that includes the planet. Consumers are being serious around environmental ideals such as self-sufficiency and ‘cottage industry’ manufacturing. They are not simply dreaming about a better world in the future, with ideals lingering in their subconscious; they really want it and want it now.

For marketers, now is the time to bring those environmental initiatives forward. Expect a stronger reaction to what used to be a small environmental issue. If you thought your category was not high on the environmental list, it may be now.

COVID-19 lockdowns continue to curb people’s freedoms. No matter how useful this is for fighting the pandemic, it is unpleasant. People now realise they can be controlled by power and misfortune.
We have developed growing empathy for those less fortunate or those without control. This has been reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement but also in charitable attitudes. For example, food waste is on the agenda, not just from an environmental perspective but due to empathy for those less fortunate who do not have access.

2020 has become the year of loss of control.

For marketers, expect your customers to have strong boundaries in regard to their rights and interests. Democratic marketing and design processes will be appreciated. Taking a collaborative approach to creating things, decisions, company politics and staff engagement will be respected. Creating a sensation of freedom, expansion and openness will be a desirable fantasy.
2020 will be a year of shifting old habits and re-wiring the mind. It’s not over yet. People are reworking what is worth leaving in the back of the mind as the inner workings of the ‘automatic pilot’. Now is the time to think about how the consumer is changing and how your brand will land in 2021 and beyond.

Mary Winter is the Insights Director at branding agency Principals.

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