No marketer could have predicted what happened in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many consumers felt scared and uncertain, greatly altering their shopping habits. This air of consumer fear and uncertainty, unlike any event before, has forced marketers to adapt to consumer changes. It’s put pressure on marketing budgets and prompted reevaluations of advertising spending.
Oleg Urminsky, professor of marketing, said that consumers swarmed stores at the start of the pandemic before avoiding shopping—save for large trips to the store—throughout the pandemic.
Citing a survey from McKinsey & Company, he also pointed out that twice the number of consumers were willing to change brands as the year before. And he finds in his research that consumers now hold organizations accountable for policing public-health policy.
“What we find is that consumers expect companies and marketers to set and enforce strict mask-wearing policies despite the controversy and problems that can attract for businesses,” he said, adding that he expects this to continue for vaccination policies.
Changes amid the pandemic have been dramatic, Urminsky noted, but which ones will persist? Urminsky posed this question at the “Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 on Marketers” alumni panel as part of the Booth Marketing Summit hosted by the Kilts Center for Marketing. The panel featured four Booth alumni experts who tackled these changes in real time.
With the vaccine becoming more common in the United States and consumers returning to stores, the panelists identified four key changes they expect to stick.
Technology Will Continue to Accelerate
The pandemic robbed marketers of their ability to track how consumers shop in stores, but it accelerated the use of data in digital environments.
Deanie Elsner, ’92, CEO of the Boulder-based CBD company Charlotte’s Web, said that while the marketing-data revolution started in 2010, the pandemic was the first time many marketers realized that data are essential to their work. “Data,” she said, “is the new engine of knowing consumers.”
James Phillips, ’97, president of the digital transformation platform at Microsoft, echoed Elsner’s thoughts: “If businesses don’t have the ability to be agile, to listen, to adapt to ever-changing consumer needs, they’re in trouble,” he said. Think, for example, of companies adding curbside pickup or delivery services amid the pandemic. In the future, more adaptations of this kind are sure to be in demand.
“If businesses don’t have the ability to be agile, to listen, to adapt to ever-changing consumer needs, they’re in trouble.”
Health and Safety Will Remain Travel Priorities
Before the pandemic, health and safety were a given in the travel industry, according to Sangita Woerner, ’99, senior vice president of marketing and guest experience at Alaska Airlines. But during the pandemic, they became a major focus for consumers.
For example, Woerner said Alaska Airlines now uses social listening tools to see if travelers feel that they had a safe travel experience. The airline industry at large focused more on cleaning the cabin and ensuring that it smells good. It’s also given flight attendants an often-difficult job: enforcing mask compliance among passengers.
“The pandemic used a lot of new muscles in the space of safety that were hard to imagine before,” Woerner said. She predicted that assuring airline passengers of safety protocols will remain paramount for at least the next two to three years.
Unpleasant Shopping Will Move Online
“Anything you don’t enjoy shopping for is going to go online,” said Norm de Greve, ’98, CMO of CVS Health.
What’s left will be the in-person shopping that consumers do enjoy—de Greve cites shopping for clothing and apparel as the No. 1 experience likely to draw consumers back to brick-and-mortar stores.
With this shift, Elsner believes that companies will need to quickly adopt technology that better links demand and the supply chain. Currently, she argued, prices are rising because companies weren’t ready for the level of consumer demand. They will need to address this quickly, or else lose out on business, she said.
“People miss shopping, but shopping will be different than it was before,” Elsner said. “There will be less tolerance for the inconvenience of shopping.”
“There’s an inherent tension here as consumers want both more privacy and more personalization. But this should push companies to better understand a consumer’s needs and wants.”
More Digital Adoption Will Mean More Privacy Concerns
Americans have not historically been concerned with data privacy, especially when compared with European consumers. But many of the panelists believe that with increased digital use will come greater privacy concerns.
“There’s an inherent tension here,” de Greve said, “as consumers want both more privacy and more personalization. But this should push companies to better understand a consumer’s needs and wants.” Woerner agreed, adding that organizations will need to get smarter at engaging with consumers and better at nurturing relationships.
Phillips believes that personalization and privacy can live together. “Third-party cookies are slowly going extinct,” he said, but every company has data that consumers have entrusted to that brand. “We’ll all adapt.”
Elsner warned that those organizations that don’t adapt to changing consumer demands won’t last long. “With consumer behavior, you can choose to engage in it or choose not to survive in the industry.”
Booth News & Events to Your Inbox
Stay informed with Booth's newsletter, event notifications, and regular updates featuring faculty research and stories of leadership and impact.
We want to demonstrate our commitment to your privacy. Please review Chicago Booth's privacy notice, which provides information explaining how and why we collect particular information when you visit our website.