"COVID-19 is here to stay, people will have to adapt." That was the title of the first article I saw in a recent copy of the Economist. The piece argued that we need to accept this pandemic as a lingering challenge with long-term societal impacts. And that the worst is still to come. Research they referenced from MIT indicates that without a medical breakthrough, between 1.4 and 3.7 million people will die worldwide by next spring, while leaving over 90% of the world's population still vulnerable to infection. It got my attention and reinvigorated my commitment to the trio of new daily behaviors in my life - social distancing, mask wearing, and regular hand washing. It also triggered a set of emotions I thought I had exhausted by now.
Our recent COVID-19 Pulse Study is an important window into these evolving feelings and beliefs that all of us are experiencing. We were grateful to see so many business leaders find value in the study. We gathered data for several specific categories that we found particularly insightful and worth sharing separately, starting here with the retail sector.
We included major North American retail brands who have continued operations through the pandemic as representatives for the category, gathering data for big box outlets like Walmart, Target and Costco, DIY centres like Home Depot and Lowes, and dominant online retailers like Amazon.
For each category and brand, we assessed consumer engagement using our proprietary BEST (Brand Engagement Sentiment Tracking) Score. This tool allows us to numerically measure the level of engagement an audience has with a brand, and detail the specific attitudes that contribute to it.
Here are a handful of our observations and accompanying thought starters for what retailers should do to sustain and build consumer engagement through the pandemic by catering to the attitudes that drive consumer actions, today and tomorrow.
Retailers face wide gaps in satisfying needs and desires
Against all six categories we tested, retail in North America achieved a BEST score of 54, placing it second only to the Hotel category. Consumers have an above average connection to brands in this space, but most retailers are not taking advantage of that untapped relationship. Not only is the spread in engagement between average consumers and those most loyal to brands very wide, the gap between the lowest and highest BEST score for individual retail brands also showed that some - such as Amazon and Costco - are faring much better through this pandemic than others.
Despite maintaining a base level of success in the midst of COVID-19, there are many retail brands missing the opportunity to build customer engagement that can lead to long-term success. Understanding the distinct emotional desires of your brand can arm you with intelligence to build a customer experience that will create more competitive distance from others when the pandemic subsides.
Innovation - Once a differentiating strategy, now a cost-of-entry
More so than previously observed, consumers are looking for retailers to be forward-thinking in their approach. Today, the onus on retailers is not only to find new ways to bring customers into their stores, but new ways to bring their stores to customers.
Successful retailers are separating themselves with new check-out procedures and touchless technologies, making their stores safer and more comfortable. The boom in online shopping through this pandemic will have a massive impact, with consumers strongly agreeing that they’ll continue to do a lot more of their shopping online even after COVID-19. Of course, being innovative in this category is not only about new technology and e-commerce; it’s also about making physically distanced, lower-touch shopping enjoyable. Lululemon seems to have figured this out, with a concierge-type of service at the front door to aid with exchanges and helping find the right size. As a sign of a great adaptation, one could easily imagine this type of personal service continuing to be the expectation even after the pandemic finally ends.
A blanket North American retail strategy may not work
We have observed more differences than similarities in the way Canadians and Americans interact with the retail sector. Unlike other categories, the personal sense of connection and relevance Americans desire from retailers is a much stronger driver of engagement than it is for their Canadian counterparts. And on this front, they’re feeling pretty good, with a BEST engagement rating 12.5% higher than that for Canadian retail consumers, driven specifically by a higher sense of brand relevance and relatability. With ongoing containment struggles, COVID-19 has taken a somewhat higher emotional toll in the US than it has in Canada, and Americans are looking to retail brands as “neutral” players that can become a reflection of themselves, providing some level of purpose and hope.
While Canadians are also driven by a desire to emotionally connect with retail brands, the basis of it is different. They are looking for brands to demonstrate their trustworthiness (doing what they say they will), and consistency in making up for mistakes (principled). Canadians have been pretty good at following the rules through this pandemic and may have become somewhat frustrated in their new more restricted lives. The expectation on retailers - one of the few reasons to leave the house - is to help quell this frustration by offering a consistent experience erring on the side of simplicity and ease.
Above all, acknowledge that brand success is audience success
With the stress and anxiety everyone is experiencing on account of COVID-19, people are looking for glimmers of hope. Brands can provide important fuel. Relatability, a feeling of being personally invested in the success of a brand, is the single most important attitude driving engagement with retail brands. Success breeds support. Support breeds success.
Consumers are willing to search out brands, and switch allegiances if necessary, to support the retailers who are catering to their most important emotional and rational desires. They are searching for winners, in order to satisfy a sense of self worth that may be lacking amidst the turmoil of the pandemic. For retailers, knowing the set of feelings and beliefs that your particular brand can engender, and building audience-centered experiences that amplify these attitudes, is the surest route to portraying your success today and building engagement for the future.
Attitudes drive actions. If you want to affect the behaviors of your various audiences, you need to understand how they feel and what they believe about you. Getting upstream of their decisions by understanding the ingredients that inform them, is the most effective approach to building and sustaining long-term engagement.
COVID-19 has shocked our emotions into a constant reset and disrupted our ability to exhibit rational thinking at times. Retail brands need to pay attention, and with the whiplash of news events down the block and around the world, they need real-time intake of this information if they hope to to build (or rebuild) engagement.
*These findings are from a June 2020 audience engagement initiative titled COVID-19 Pulse Study, conducted by Emotive Technologies Inc. To download your copy, free of charge or obligation, please visit here.
Marc Whitehead is founding partner and CEO of Emotive Technologies Inc., a technology-based research company that has developed a scoring system which enables businesses, organizations and brands to measure engagement with their most important audiences, and build strategies to deepen it.