The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way brands do business as well as the way consumers shop. Remote and hybrid workers now are the norm, and customers have learned to regularly use online ordering, delivery and store pickup options. Health and safety for both employees and customers have become the top priority. Now that vaccinations are commonly available and lockdowns are rare, how has brand culture changed in the post-COVID world?
Transparency and Communication Are Critical
The pandemic caused many people to be highly concerned with health and safety both at home and in the workplace. Transparency and honesty became critical as people sought answers to questions about the virus and the measures brands were taking to ensure the health and safety of customers and employees. They wanted to be informed about how businesses were maintaining a high level of cleanliness, social distancing, installing plexiglass germ shields, and other ways brands were keeping employees and customers safe.
Communication went from the standard “need to know” basis to a more informal, relaxed basis in which everybody was kept well informed, and employees were encouraged to speak up. This wasn’t a change that is likely to go away, and it has largely been absorbed and normalized in company cultures today.
For employees to remain engaged and productive, brands have had to up their communication game. "Best practices from last year, such as encouraging employees to simply use video and chat capabilities in their workflows, aren’t enough to keep them engaged anymore," said Bobby Beckmann, general manager of meeting solutions at Lifesize, a cloud communications and collaboration services provider. "To take hybrid work and the digital workplace to the next level in 2021, communication and collaboration tools must become more inclusive and firmly rooted in organizations’ core work cultures."
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Health and Safety Come First
Customers and employees want to feel safe whether their shopping in store or working with delivery options and business have stepped up. “A brand is a promise and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is how that promise is kept. Quality now extends to new layers of safety that didn’t exist before…or at least were not top of mind for customers. Is the store safe, is the restaurant clean, is the staff vaccinated? What is the brand doing to consider my safety? What is it doing to keep its own people safe? Brands have had to think of new ways to stay engaged with customers and extend the promise into new domains,” said Justin Angle, an associate professor of marketing who specializes in branding at the University of Montana.
Aside from health and safety measures such as regularly cleaning and disinfecting the workplace, brands have had to ensure that both customers and employees feel emotionally secure and supported. The pandemic has been traumatic for most people, many people are still going through the grieving process, while others are dealing with feelings of isolation and depression. Brands have had to make adjustments to the ways they interact with people, with some brands putting up plexiglass “sneeze guards” and others putting social distancing guidelines on the floor.
Convenience and Speed Matter More
“Pre-pandemic, distribution decisions were becoming more and more central to marketing. Now distribution and supply chain are perhaps the most important marketing considerations. Can you get the right product to the right customer at the right time? If you promise delivery, can you keep that promise? How much risk are you willing to take making these promises? For a brand that relies on resellers, how do you prioritize your resellers? For DTC brands, do you have the systems to deliver when facing a new array of challenges? This is not a skillset common to most brand strategists. The winners will be the ones who can adapt, skill up, or embrace new talent that can help,” said professor Angle.
Research from SOTI revealed that U.S. consumers prefer speed and convenience when shopping — with limited human interaction — 73% said they were in favor of self-service technologies which improve the retail shopping experience and reduce interactions with staff, and 76% indicated that retailers that use more mobile technology enable a faster shopping experience.
Online Sales Aren’t Going Away
Long-time brick and mortar shoppers have embraced online shopping and those users likely won't go back, according to Gina Pomponi, president and COO of Bluewater, a direct marketing and advertising agency. “The last two years have been a whirlwind for brands and consumers alike. COVID hit suddenly in March of 2020, forcing quarantined consumers to shift their shopping behaviors from brick-and-mortar to online. It was simply a matter of life or death for many,” she said.
The pandemic increased the speed with which customers moved to online shopping. “Although the U.S. consumers had been steadily moving online for goods and services, COVID accelerated this shift ahead by 5+ years,” said Pomponi. “This boosted a year-over-year increase in ecommerce sales of over 30% in 2020 during the worst of the pandemic, with 2020 online sales matching those not previously projected until at least 2022. Online sales are predicted to grow again in 2021 to $207 billion.”
The move to online shopping has caused many brands to rethink the ways they market to customers, and to take a closer look at the entire customer journey. “Although the COVID vaccination is widely available in the U.S., it certainly hasn’t caused consumers to go back to their old buying habits. The online shopping era seems like it’s here to stay,” said Pomponi. “This has forced many previously traditional brick-and-mortar retailers to rapidly step up their ability to meet these demands. No longer can companies rely on consumers walking the store isles to find their products. The consumer is now essentially the marketer!”
Where Did the Water Cooler Go?
The water cooler has been thought of as the place where employees come together, socialize and casually talk with co-workers about work and non-work topics. Even more important than an actual water cooler are the casual conversations between co-workers that center around a place where people from different departments get together, whether it’s in a break room, the lobby or around a coffee pot.
Even with vaccinations available to all adults, much of the workforce is still remote or hybrid. According to a Quantum Workplace report entitled The State of Remote Work, the number of remote and hybrid employees is much higher than it was before the pandemic. In June 2021, 30% of employees were hybrid employees and 35% reported working remotely. The report also revealed that 21% of employees want to work remotely full time, and 68% want a hybrid work schedule — and only 11% want to work onsite full time. The pandemic changed workplace dynamics, and the water cooler became an analogy for a virtual place where employees could meet.
Before the pandemic there were 10 million daily Zoom users, but by April 2020, there were 300 million users. In November 2019, there were 20 million Microsoft Teams users, but by July 2021, there were 250 million daily users. Slack had 10 million active users at the end of October 2021, and 3 million paying customers.
In addition to communication and collaboration platforms, a new type of digital and virtual whiteboards have enabled remote and hybrid employees to visually collaborate with one another. Digital whiteboards include online-only platforms like Mural and Miro and device- and app-enabled physical products such as Vibe, Microsoft Surface Hub and Google Jamboard. Virtual whiteboards are hosted in the cloud, so employees can be geographically located anywhere and still collaborate with their fellow employees, leaders, and managers. They are able to use text, graphs, images, audio, and drawings, all of which contribute to the new virtual water cooler experience.
Brand culture has evolved over the past two years to become more people-centric, with a focus on health and safety, along with speed and convenience. Brands must ensure that they communicate transparently with both customers and employees, and continue to provide an exceptional online shopping experience.