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How COVID-19 has Irreversibly Changed the Way We Market

Brands will need to learn to navigate this new digital landscape. Here are some of the biggest digital changes and trends we're seeing.

13 mins read time
Wendi Williams
Wendi Williams

May 26, 2020

The last few months have read a bit like a dystopian novel: crisis, chaos and economic hardship have hit for many individuals and businesses. As the world begins to slowly reopen, we’re greeted by a landscape that looks much different than we’re used to. The digital landscape has been forever altered as well, and brands will need to learn to navigate this new terrain with both caution and courage as we move forward. We already covered the 2020 branding trends that we have seen emerging, one of them being "crisis management." Here are some of the biggest digital changes and shifting trends we’re seeing specifically come out as a response to the changes we're all experiencing from COVID-19:

“Click and Collect” Changes the Way We Buy Essentials

The Great Toilet Paper Caper of 2020 will go down in history as the number one (and number two) “weird crisis responses” of our time. Potty humor aside, the way we shop for the basics has shifted, and it’s likely that some of the changes are here to stay. Grocery stores, big box stores and other essential businesses had to swiftly alter their operations to accommodate stay-at-home orders and provide food and other necessary items to those in quarantine. While some had already implemented grocery pickup platforms, others were left scrambling to adapt. 

Now, customers are learning the ins and outs of curbside service and combined with continued anxieties over unnecessary exposure, we will likely continue to see growth in this segment of the digital space. In the span of a few months, grocery delivery and pickup services jumped close to 20 percent, more than doubling the previous penetration rate. While this is a temporary adjustment for some households, others may continue the shift away from brick-and-mortar shopping routines through 2020 and beyond.

(Psst Target also just announced they're the first large online retailer to take advantage of the brand-new Instagram Checkout. To buy an item via Instagram Checkout, Target customers click on a shopping bag icon in the lower corner of the Instagram post, add to their cart, and checkout without ever leaving the platform).

Online Bargain Shoppers Rejoice

Recent data shows that even though incomes are reduced across the country, optimism is high, which indicates greater spending. Unsurprisingly, ecommerce is soaring, though shoppers continue to seek out the best deals. Discretionary purchases may be considered more thoughtfully than before, with buyers basing their decisions on a growing number of factors. Online retailers with pre-crisis merchandise and warehouses full of inventory are offering steep discounts, BOGO deals and other incentives to entice consumers. There may be a coming “Battle of the Bargains,” as brick-and-mortar retailers slash prices to woo customers through the door, even as online brands hone their marketing strategies to reach buyers with deals too good to pass up. 

Virtual Try-Ons

Is the department store fitting room a thing of the past? As it plans to reopen dozens of stores across the country, Macy’s is vowing to hold all fitting room merchandise for 24 hours, giving bacteria and germs time to die off. But will customers be comforted enough to take the risk? Online retailers like Warby Parker offer virtual try-ons, allowing consumers to upload photos and use a filter to see how they would look in any number of their eyeglass frames, and Sephora does the same to "try before you buy" things like their lipstick brands. As the shift continues from in-person shopping to online more than every before, will we continue to see this trend for virtual try-ons using augmented reality? As we head through 2020, we can expect to see other fashion retailers implementing similar services, adaptable to your body type, style preferences, clothing size and more. Home décor retailers like IKEA offer “see it in your space” options via augmented reality apps to allow shoppers to envision their homes or offices with fresh décor. It seems that the “try before you buy” mentality is on the rise, and retailers are paying attention.

Transparency in Sourcing

Want to know where the cotton used to make your favorite pair of jeans was grown? Or how about mapping the journey your gourmet coffee took before it arrived at your door? Savvy brands are realizing that consumers care about the origin of the products they buy as we shift to focusing on supporting the local brands we love, and that desire for sourcing transparency is growing in the wake of the crisis. Digital sourcing allows brands to flex their creativity, by utilizing maps, interactive content and real-time tracking for both local and international products. Speaking of, the balance between local and global purchasing is shifting, with more consumers interested in buying locally or regionally whenever possible. Whether they want to support the businesses in their own backyard, or just want to see where their money is going, tracing product origin and journeys is more important than ever.

Putting Down the Phone

Has the smartphone bubble burst? Not a chance. But surprisingly, smartphone usage hasn’t risen noticeably through isolation. Instead, consumers are finding other ways to connect digitally. Cocktail hour with friends has become “Zoomtail Hour” on the laptop, while the seventh grade classroom is now accessed via screen sharing programs on larger-than-life TV screens. Video game play is also on the rise, as sports teams, both professional and amateur, find their seasons delayed or canceled. Many brands have spent the last few years focusing on their mobile strategy, but are now looking at ways to broaden their horizons and create content for a wider variety of platforms. 

Social Media or Socially Distant? 

As you would expect, social media usage during quarantine has gone up, as users work to stay connected, even while they’re physically apart. Some platforms, like Facebook Messenger Rooms and Instagram Shops, have been launched specifically to give users a place to be social and still keep brands in business, while remaining socially distant. Brands, however, have had greater challenges in how to effectively utilize their social media during this time. Research shows that some industries, like travel and athletics, have gone all but silent in the wake of the crisis, while healthcare and non-profits are gaining more traction every day. Brands must be vigilant in managing their social media presence right now, as optimal posting times have shifted due to remote-work schedules, and users seek out content they need, delivered when, where and how they want it.

Other Trends

As we continue on in the wake of a global crisis, it’s easy for brands to feel their on unsteady footing. Trends are evolving on a daily basis, and while we can make predictions, we haven’t yet felt all the repercussions. Other trends for brands to keep an eye on include:

  • No-Contact Payment: Brick-and-mortar retailers are looking for ways to reduce exposure to bacteria and cross-contamination. They’re implementing wider use of services like Samsung Pay or Apple Pay to cut down on card exchanges, cash purchases, PIN codes or signature requirements.

  • 1:1 Contact: In the time of social distancing, one-on-one anything sounds scary, but in this case, 1:1 marketing techniques can help your brand ensure it’s delivering the right message to the right person. Check out our email marketing tips for 2020, and start designing a strategy that works.

  • Digital Learning: Many platforms are embracing the pros of distance and e-learning, offering a wealth of content across many industries. For example, our partners at Hubspot are providing an educational series for marketers called Adapt 2020, featuring benchmarking data, live events and industry deep-dives. 

  • Prioritized Shipping: We've all become used to same-day or next-day Amazon shipping, but that has gone away mid-COVID. It's been interesting to watch the world's biggest brand shift to a "prioritization" shipping strategy. Order vitamins or ibuprofen online? Great, it'll still come fast. Want to get a baking pan or a pair of slippers? Expect a three-week delay. Is universal same-day shipping a thing of the past as everyone orders their essentials online??

2020 brought more than we bargained for, but not more than we can handle. This is definitely the BIGGEST shift and most rapid shift in business and marketing that we've ever seen. But, unlike those guilty-pleasure dystopian novels, for many brands, this story will have a happy ending — of hope, of overcoming obstacles, and of a brighter tomorrow.


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Wendi Williams

After beginning her career in broadcast media, Wendi spent the next decade writing for clients in a variety of industries, including healthcare, business and tech. She’s been writing since she was 8 years old, and more than 30 years later, doesn’t foresee slowing down anytime soon. Her passion is using words to bring brands to life, and telling their stories in unique and engaging ways. She shares a life of wonder, curiosity and exploration with her husband, two children and pet lizard.

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