Pivoting Toward the New Consumer Experience: The 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s true: We’re very close to reaching the first anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization announced that the virus had reached pandemic status on March 11, 2020, setting in motion the first wave of U.S. business closures and shelter-at-home orders. From its earliest days, the pandemic altered consumer thinking about the safety of shopping at local businesses. I’m sure we all remember the days of watching medical doctors on YouTube explain how to properly sanitize every grocery item brought back from the store. Since that time, we’ve adjusted to the new normal in large part, and now we can look forward to a light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines reach more and more of the population. 

But we know already that we’ll never be the same. The first days of the shutdown launched businesses into a veritable frenzy of modified operations, from supply chain changes to new offerings like curbside pickup to the implementation of stringent health and safety protocols in stores. Some of these changes have already fallen by the wayside; for the most part, grocery stores in my town have given up trying to make all shopping aisles one-way-only. Other changes, such as the enforcement of social distancing, are probably with us for a while yet, and still others — in particular, an enlarged role for online and otherwise contactless activity in the local purchase journey — are likely here to stay. 

At Brandify, we’ve been tracking the many changes in business offerings and operations across just about every industry over the course of the past 12 months, as the pandemic has altered consumer behavior patterns and expectations. We’ve also been working with brands to imagine the consumer experience of the future. To further bring the voice of the brand marketer into that conversation, we asked marketing contacts at several multi-location brands to complete a survey we’re calling the 2021 Brand Innovation Survey. In the survey, we asked marketers to answer questions about their 2020 experiences and 2021 expectations. 

Respondents manage local marketing for multi-location brands in a variety of industries including retail, automotive, grocery, restaurants, home improvement, real estate, and more, in total representing several thousand store and office locations across the U.S.

Key Findings

  • Normal operations were drastically impacted by the pandemic for 52% of brands and moderately impacted for 48%; zero brands reported no impact.
  • 39% of brands said the pandemic had a “moderately negative” impact on overall business success, with 26% calling the impact “moderately positive” and 22% “significantly positive.”
  • 43% of brands implemented curbside pickup for the first time in 2020; 33% implemented either phone/virtual consultations or BOPIS for the first time.
  • 78% of brands say consumers have generally reacted positively to operational changes made in response to the pandemic.
  • The most popular items still to be implemented in 2021 are curbside pickup, BOPIS, and no-touch payments.
  • 74% of brand marketers feel that some changes made during the pandemic are likely to be permanent.

The Pandemic Effect

We asked survey respondents a series of questions about the impact of the pandemic on store operations, open hours, and overall business success during the course of 2020. 

How Did the Pandemic Impact Store or Office Operations in 2020?

Brandify 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

How Did the Pandemic Impact Operating Hours in 2020?

Brandify 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

How Did the Pandemic Impact Overall Business Success in 2020?

Brandify 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

The results for this first set of questions, for the most part, lined up well with our expectations. Unsurprisingly, every brand marketer surveyed felt their company’s operations were impacted by the pandemic, with a slight majority of 52% characterizing the impact as drastic. Some 43% of respondents had to close many stores or significantly reduce store hours for a long period of time, while 48% experienced minimal closures, perhaps due to being in essential business categories. 

We also asked marketers how the pandemic impacted business success in 2020 for their companies. We deliberately left this question open-ended, so that “success” could be defined by any measure the respondent felt was appropriate, from sales to operational effectiveness to mere survival, no guarantee in this trying year. 

We were encouraged to see that 48% of respondents felt the pandemic had at least a moderately positive impact on their company’s success, whereas 39% characterized the impact as moderately negative and only 4% as significantly negative. Though perhaps counterintuitive at first, the plurality of respondents who counted success as either moderately or significantly positive likely fall into business categories such as grocery that provided essential needs, or those like craft stores, hardware stores, and retailers who saw booming sales as consumers sheltering at home looked for projects to occupy their time.

Toward a New Consumer Experience

We were curious about the relative popularity of tactics implemented during the pandemic to address consumer needs for flexibility and safety in business transactions. 

What strategies did you deploy for the first time in 2020 in response to the pandemic?

Brandify 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

How have customers responded to the changes you’ve made?

Brandify 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

What strategies do you plan to deploy for the first time in 2021? 

Brandify 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

The results show that brand marketers are intently focused on providing options, particularly at the point of transaction, that help to smooth the purchase journey and remove friction caused by trepidation about health and safety. Habits are likely being formed as consumers get used to more and more businesses offering curbside pickup, BOPIS, no-touch payments, third party delivery services, virtual services, special hours, appointments, and other related services. 

In fact, we expect the quality of those services to be an area of focus as consumers look not only to have flexible options in place but also for those options to perform at a high level. It does no good to use a third party delivery service if drivers are often unavailable or restaurant food arrives cold; consumers will likely place increased scrutiny on quality of service with these still new but highly popular offerings. 

We included an “other” option for the questions above that elicited a range of interesting responses for strategies developed in 2020 or planned for 2021, including the following: 

  • “We pushed drive-through oil change as an alternative to the lobby.” 
  • “Added extra banners/messages on our website and locator to drive traffic to stores.”
  • “Adopted several new procedures and protocols to keep areas clean and safe.”
  • “We promoted stay-in-your-car service.”
  • “We added pickup service at our new locations.”
  • “Paid search advertising.”
  • “Reserve online, pickup in store (ROPIS).” 

Asked which strategies were the most successful in 2020 or were predicted to have the greatest impact in 2021, respondents offered a wide variety of answers. Here’s a sampling: 

  • “New family meal offerings.”
  • “Self-guided tours.”
  • “No touch payments as this will be the way of the future.”
  • “First-party delivery expanded our ecommerce department by millions.”
  • “Promoting stay-in-your-car service used to be a differentiator, but it has become a necessity in the COVID era.”
  • “New promotions to adapt to an ever-changing travel climate.”
  • “Offers: working hard to re-engage lost customers.” 
  • “Adding more contactless solutions because that is what our customers are looking for.”
  • “After-hours rentals to capture customers we would have lost.”
  • “Multiple third-party delivery options for customers to choose from.” 
  • “Virtual shopping options for customers who want the store to come to them.”
  • “New mobile app features.”

It’s clear, and understandable, that strategies differ significantly by industry, and that marketers are very far from adopting a one-size-fits-all-approach. Instead, they are listening to the voice of the customer and enacting strategies that are appropriate for their typical customer’s needs. The common threads between them are flexibility, safety, and a greater proportion of online activity in the purchase journey.

Is the New Normal Here to Stay?

We were curious as to how brand marketers are thinking about the future, in particular to what extent the moves they are making now are helping to create a lasting new consumer experience for local shopping. 

Will the Changes You’ve Made (or Plan to Make) Be Permanent?

Brandify 2021 Brand Innovation Survey

As we can see, most marketers have accepted that they are in the process of defining a new purchase journey that will persist into the future. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every aspect of our interaction with local businesses has changed. The introduction of options like BOPIS, ROPIS, third party delivery, and virtual appointments simply represents an advance in convenience powered by technology, just as Uber improved upon taxis and Airbnb made it easier to rent properties. This round of changes is much more widespread and fragmented, but it adds up to a similar streamlining of the operational details surrounding a traditional practice. 

In a final question, we asked our respondents if they had any advice for brand marketers looking to meet consumer expectations in 2021. A sampling of those responses: 

  • “Listen to your customers; rise up to their needs, even when your opinion differs (i.e. COVID sensitivity).” 
  • “In industries where contact cannot be entirely avoided, consumers want reassurance that safety really is a priority and that businesses are taking it seriously.”
  • “Move fast and meet customers where they are!”
  • “Evaluate often and stay flexible.”
  • “Ecom, ecom, ecom.”
  • “Look at the successes and challenges of 2020 and plan accordingly. Future plans should be based on what worked.” 
  • “Convenience and assortment are key. Many brands are up against inventory constraints, but consumers expect a constant flow of newness.” 
  • “Continue to innovate and offer multiple ways to shop.”
  • “Be open to try new ideas and technology.”
  • “Assess your industry market and make changes accordingly.  You might need to focus more on providing different delivery options while another industry might need to focus on online purchases.”
  • “At the end of the day, being a source of truth for your customers is always the best. The pandemic has been around for almost a year now and people have adjusted. Tell the story of what you and your company did to help your community, your employees, and your partners. People care about the values of a company, especially in the face of a hardship such as COVID.”

As you can see, our respondents offered thoughtful advice much of which focused, in the words of one response, on meeting customers where they are. Especially striking is the final quote above, which reminds us that, aside from utilitarian concerns about shopping convenience, consumers are likely to feel a stronger affinity for brands whose values align with their own. Undoubtedly, the strength and endurance we’ve exhibited throughout this trying period is a testament to the values we share.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.
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