The Great Disruption: Brands, Contexts, & Habits

As I write this, the world reels from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Locked restaurants, travel bans, closed schools, sports seasons cancelled, and shelter in place orders disrupt the rhythms of everyday life. It is too early to predict if the economy will bounce back quickly or if this is the beginning of a long-term financial downturn. Planning in the midst of a unique crisis without historical precedence is like trying to navigate an unknown passage in the dark without a guide. But there are things all brand managers should be doing right now to prepare for that unpredictable future.

I look at the world of commerce through the lens of habit—most of what we do is repeated behaviors run on autopilot. Habits form automatically when we repeatedly solve the same problem in similar situations. These familiar situations become unconscious contexts, signposts that let us know where we are and what we’re doing. Inside of a context, behaviors are comfortably automated. The response to COVID-19 is shredding all of our customers’ existing contexts across their personal and professional lives.

Most of what we buy, where we shop, and the apps and services we use are habits wrapped inside of contexts developed over a lifetime. The destruction of existing contexts means habitual behaviors are not being activated. And this is why the long-term impact from the pandemic has already changed your brand’s future value.

Because no one knows how long these drastic measures will last, and what the world will look like when they subside, it is impossible to know if disrupted contexts (and habits) will return intact, modified, or not at all. Hoping the world returns to normal is not a viable strategy.

Brand value is inexorably linked to customer contexts. A hamburger at an upscale restaurant costs 5x what one would pay for a fast food burger. The repercussions of not just the pandemic but the resulting financial implosion will act as a giant context reset across products and service in both B2C and B2B. If Zoom replaces business travel for just 5% of meetings, what will that mean to airlines, hotels, restaurants, ride services, and dry cleaners? Will the millions of new users of food delivery services develop a solid context of ordering in instead of eating out, or will they rapidly return to pre-pandemic habits? What brand owners do now will determine their brands’ future, in some cases, if their brands have a future.

So, what should brand managers be doing now to reestablish customers’ habitual relationship with their brands?

  • Remind customers why they used the brand in the first place. Assume none of your pre-COVID-19 brand value exists beyond the value of your category. Invest in advertising and direct communications to reestablish brand positioning—this is your context.
  • Reinforce purchase and usage. Habits become dormant if not periodically reinforced. Compensatory behaviors are emerging every day that might be replacing your brand’s value to your customers. Reinforcement of behavior is how contexts are unconsciously created.
  • Stimulate purchase and usage. Invest heavily in promotions. Find ways to get customers to buy or use your product/service. Think through all the behavioral steps to purchase and use and remove barriers like you were launching a new brand.

Context is just one component of habitual behavior cycle. The next Great Disruption article focuses on cues and how brand managers can reestablish old cues or create new ones.

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