Force of Habit Change sign

Force of habit — the opportunity of a lifetime.

Mike Foster, Founder & Creative Director, talks about brands making new connections with people as old habits are swept away and new ones forged.

COVID-19 is a human tragedy and an economic catastrophe. It is taking lives and destroying livelihoods across the globe. We’re all racing to keep up with the changes sweeping across our society and through our lives. Almost overnight, everything changed, and nothing will be the same again.

For brands, this presents many questions. For some, it is an existential crisis. For others, it is a downturn to endure. Yet there is an opportunity here too. There is an opportunity for brands to reconsider how they contribute to people’s lives and the connections they make with them.

Most crucially, as long-established habits are swept away in a matter of weeks, there is a moment right now – a rare and fleeting moment – for brands to step forward, to forge new connections with people, to become our new habits.

The power of habit

We, humans, are far more habitual than we like to believe. We imagine ourselves to be rational creatures, carefully weighing decisions in the reason-led pre-frontal cortex. In truth, as any neurologist or behavioural psychologist will tell you, we rely far more on our basal ganglia, the part of the brain that allows us to fill in the gaps in a busy, chaotic, ever-changing world with the easy, familiar choices that just feel right – our habits.

Habit drives many of the purchases we make. Look at chocolate bars: the same brands have remained in the top ten for the past 30 years. We don’t consider whether to buy a Twix, some M&Ms, or an unfamiliar start-up. We just grab the same one we always do.

Every year brands that aren’t the habitual purchase in a category spend hundreds of millions of pounds trying to change people’s habits. Sometimes they succeed. Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo, Airbnb all saw how technology could change the way we shop, travel, eat and holiday. They rode a wave of disruptive technology, became new habits, and now they’re on every home screen in the world. 

But most of the time, habits just don’t change. 

Then COVID-19 happened. A few months ago a virus crossed species on the other side of the world, and now we’ve all changed how we live and what we do. Our habits have been broken. It’s not so much levelled the playing field as detonated a landmine under the field. The soil and grass are still falling around us, a new field is forming, and no one knows what it will look like.

The crisis is painful, and the uncertainty is unsettling, but the opportunity is tangible. This unfamiliar new field is wide open for anyone to walk in and take centre stage. All brands have the chance of a lifetime to get attention, connect with people, to become a new habit we start forming. 

New connections

So, how to do it?

For most FMCG giants the instinct will be to reach for testing, but that won’t work here. In a world so profoundly changed, historical modelling is largely redundant. Start now on a traditional long-winded consumer testing programme, and you’ll probably find it interrupted by future lockdowns. Even if we’re lucky and there are no further lockdowns, when you finally unveil your research-backed brand strategy, it will be too late. The brands who acted today will be well on the way to becoming our new habits.

Right now, we’ve got to do what the most successful entrepreneurs always do. We’ve got to rely on instinct. 

We need to apply our instinct to the central brand questions. Who are we trying to reach? Is it the same people as six weeks ago or do we need to refocus? How can we be more relevant to their lives? How can we connect more fully with them?

The way we act in the short term will matter. According to March 2020 Edelman Brand Trust research, 37% of people have already switched brands or used a new brand as a result of the way it responded to the outbreak. Morrisons, Apple, Pret a Manger, Marks & Spencer and Co-op are connecting with people in a way that Tim Martin, Mike Ashley and Richard Branson are not.

But we also need to think longer term. What will the world be like during the recovery phase over the next one to two years? Beyond that, how will the events of 2020 reshape the way we live?

It’s hard to tell. Future gazing is always a risky pursuit. McKinsey is doing some valuable thinking in this space and pointing to increased price sensitivity, higher digital engagement, a rise in attention to wellness and hygiene, “nesting” at home, and a redefinition of brand purpose. It also expects a smaller food-service sector, retailer consolidation, the rise of value retailers, as well as Amazon’s growth in grocery.

A fleeting moment

Over the coming weeks and months, the future will become clearer, but don’t wait for clarity. By then, new habits will already be asserting themselves. The moment to forge new connections to be part of the new habits forming is right now.  

Remember too that for all the Amazons, Ubers, Deliveroos and AirBnBs there are many, many booksellers, taxi firms, restaurants and hoteliers, who two decades ago took one look at emerging technologies and shrunk away in fear. No one remembers who they are are.

We will all be profoundly changed by this. Most acutely, the bereaved families and traumatised medical professionals will never be the same again. The rest of us are lucky – we have a choice in how this affects us. We can shrink back in fear and emerge blinking into the light of whatever world emerges from this, or we can think carefully and deeply about how we can be relevant, useful and valuable to the world now taking shape.