TRENDS AND FUTURE INSIGHTS | article | Friday, April 10, 2020
A NEW CRITICAL MASS POST-CORONAVIRUS
The social, cultural, psychological and economic impact of the global health crisis, triggered by the coronavirus, will be massive. The general consensus is that when this crisis is over, nothing will be the same. A new normal will be constructed, redefining society and the market. In the midst of the storm, it’s impossible to predict a future scenario with certainty: what will life be like, how will we relate to each other, how will our purchasing decisions and consumption habits be affected. This is due to the current trial and error testing of original and contingent solutions, of the day-to-day challenges of a surreal phenomenon (due to its lack of recent precedents) and to its unpredictability (like any pandemic). A globalized and hyper-connected world also gives this crisis a special modern character: it is the first pandemic that we can follow directly and instantly in live streaming. The social and economic experiment that is currently underway will undoubtedly be a powerful breeding ground for future innovations.
The depth and scope of the changes will depend on the impact of the pandemic in each country and the social shock it will produce. Some new trends will emerge while others will be accentuated encouraging a greater number of people around the world to adopt new sets of values, social behaviors, fears and consumption habits. The global health crisis will help to consolidate a critical mass capable of transforming the current social, cultural and economic paradigm.
How much will we change? Current anxiety levels fluctuate between two extremes: "we are going to get out of this as more solidary, conscious and responsible people", to: "we will get out of this and live a crazy life without caring about anything at all because we know we could die at any moment". Human nature is complex and surely behavioral changes will lie somewhere in the middle of these two polar opposites.
FACTORS THAT ARE ENCOURAGING CHANGES
In this unprecedented situation, there are four change factors operating simultaneously that are instigating actions and reactions in people, that eventually could turn into to lasting habits.
The first is isolation. Whether the social distancing is compulsory or voluntary, there is no doubt that we are living in an atypical and, at times, surreal situation. Human beings are essentially social beings, and when they fear being isolated from the rest of the group, they can’t help but react. The necessity of having to suddenly transfer almost all of our relationships into the virtual realm is disconcerting and distressing. Further compounding the stress is the uncertainty and lack of precise information on how long this isolation will last. Will it be two weeks? Two more months? Longer?
Global digital connectivity acts like a containment web that, in a way, reduces the fear of isolation. The exaggeratedly high volume of online presence during these weeks (the avalanche of publications and ‘lives’ on social networks) can be interpreted as a desperate desire to not let oneself fall off of people's radar. However, as various scientific studies indicate, while technology-mediated interaction is useful, it does not entirely replace the social effect of live face-to-face connection, where non-verbal communication plays a decisive role.
Quarantine can also have ample repercussions on family life, especially when considering who the isolation is shared with and what kinds of ties are being developed. Being face to face, 24 hours a day with your partner, family or roommates is highly unusual, even more so in a society based on over-working and is high in levels of anxiety. In some cases, isolation can lead to healthy family reconciliations, but in others it could lead to conflict and even escalate into domestic violence, as is already being seen in several countries. In France, for example, special hotels have been set up so that women at risk of sexist violence can confine and protect themselves. In the Chinese city of Xi'an, divorce claims skyrocketed after the quarantine ended. Similarly, spending the quarantine alone can trigger feelings that will lead to various future actions and decisions.
Studies have shown that long periods of isolation are associated with the rise of mental illness and health problems such as depression, dementia, cardiovascular conditions, and death. This becomes even more serious, considering that the previous social scenario already showed an increase in these diseases as a result of contemporary dynamics. There are other experts however who claim that some people, in isolation, might actually improve their mental health by developing new personal tools of well-being and resilience.
The second factor that influences people’s actions during a pandemic situation is fear of illness and death. In this particular case, the fear is even more heightened as the coronavirus is an unknown biological threat for which there is little information and, at least for the moment, no available cure. The fact that we are dealing with an “invisible” danger that cannot be concretely defined adds to the drama. The rapid spread of the virus throughout the world has contributed to the feeling of shock that people are experiencing. In France, for example, violent altercations have been reported in pharmacies where people have tried to buy a mask without success.
Add to everything above the toxic framework at the informative level, which creates confusion about the specific risks for individuals in different countries. The real-time count of the number of infected and dead, that increases exponentially, has become a cause of daily stress, fueled by unprecedented and shocking images such as an ice skating rink turned into a morgue in Madrid, a long line of army vehicles transporting hundreds of coffins in Bergamo or refrigerated trucks transformed into corpse preservation chambers in New York. Increasing awareness of the fragility and finitude of human life is the driver of many defensive and offensive decisions that are made day to day.
The third destabilizing factor is large-scale social uncertainty. The pandemic has completely disorganized our lives, immersing us in the feeling that everything is out of our control and that we can’t take steps to restore our routines because the duration of the crisis is unpredictable. Our intuition tells us that after this phenomenon many things will not be the same, but we don’t quite know yet what that new normal will be like. This level of uncertainty and unpredictability can be overwhelming, and can drive people to behave in unique and unprecedented ways, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The phenomenon of toilet paper hoarding in some societies can be interpreted as a desire to take control of the uncertainty in the only way we know how: through excessive consumption and accumulation. A short circuit in our logical thinking occurs when we are faced with an immense danger and then told that it is actually preventable in a very simple way: by washing our hands. Hoarding is a psychological mechanism, a forceful response to a big threat.
Looking at the deserted streets feels strange and eerie. Once bustling, crowded, noisy and busy, they are now a stage where it is forbidden to circulate and strengthen ties with others. Faced with an invisible and highly contagious biological phenomenon, mistrust stains the collective environment around us: anyone can now be seen as a potential threat. Even simply going to the supermarket, one of the few actions still allowed, generates feelings of discomfort.
The expansion of time is another consequence that alienates us. The situation is unknown, the reference points that are commonly used to guide our routines have disappeared, enveloping everyone in timelessness making it extremely difficult to organize daily activities. This is an important counterpoint to a society dominated by anxiety. Stress levels are increasing in wide sectors of the population. However, there are other aspects that are being altered, and not necessarily in a harmful way. For example, various studies report that people’s listening (attention) span is increasing by up to 50%.
The fourth factor is related to the negative economic impact that the pandemic will have on families. It’s clear that the recession will worsen globally and that the scale of its impact, compared to other major crises, such as that of 1929 or 2008, is still open for discussion. In the U.S., the number of unemployed has increased by millions in a handful of days. Simultaneously we are still in a kind of stand-by mode that prevents us from actually implementing the strategies that would help solve the financial issues that we currently face and will have to deal with in the near and long-term future.
Beyond the question of how the economic recession will affect us personally, there is another destabilizing factor at a symbolic level: in a hyperactive capitalist world, where productivity, frenetic work and shortage of time are status symbols, being at home with a reduced level of activity or being partially or permanently "unemployed", suddenly deprives people from what was once a fundamental component for the construction of their identity. For many, not having a professional activity represents not having much to communicate on social media, not to mention a lost sense of purpose.
TRENDS THAT WILL CONSOLIDATE A NEW CRITICAL MASS
These four factors - isolation, fear of death, social uncertainty and a declining economic situation - will cause broad swaths of the population to react and make some extraordinary decisions to overcome the crisis. These measures could then become the foundation for a future set of values, social behaviors and consumption habits that will dominate the new normal emerging from a post-coronavirus world. The health, social and economic crises could be the definitive boost that accelerates an already emerging critical mass.
This critical mass will integrate - to a greater or lesser extent - new patterns, perceptions and ideas around the following topics:
THE RECOGNITION OF INIQUITY AND INEQUALITY
The pandemic has managed to create a kind of democratization of fragility. As all people are vulnerable to the same biological threat, a human condition of equality has been revealed in a deeply unequal society in economic terms. All people abide by the same rules because they are just as fragile. However, this situation provokes new expressions of inequities, making privileges more tangible. An example is the controversy unleashed in the USA over the privileged access that some celebrities have had, without reporting serious symptoms, to the Covid19 test; or the fleeing of French millionaires to their summer homes to escape from Paris, adding tension to the sanitary capacities of small tourist villages. This general inequality and injustice manifests itself even more evidently in the workforce, where some people can confine themselves safely in their homes while others must continue to work exposing themselves to risk: supermarket employees, garbage collectors, delivery workers, among others. The desire for more equity could be reinforced in the future, giving rise to new forms of micro-activism.
THE BREAKING OF INDIVIDUALISM
In a society where individualism is a cult, it is now becoming clear that survival largely depends on coordinated action with others. Paradoxically, the strategy of survival consists in social distancing as defense, but also in solidarity with the collective. The omnipotent religion of "meritocracy" has found a tangible limit and, for many, the revelation that there is no absolute independence from the group of which we are a part is a harsh reality. The desire to create micro and macro communities (online-offline), a trend which we have been observing in recent years, will be greatly stimulated and will prompt new and original strategies to strengthen ties with others. The ritual of applauding the healthcare workers from our windows and balconies is evidence that people need to feel as though they are a part of something bigger, and need to feel a sense of belonging. The increase in collaborative behaviors is a sign of the coronavirus times: volunteer drivers who transport doctors and nurses to hospitals, people who shop for elderly or disabled neighbors, artists and musicians who perform from their balconies to entertain the neighborhood, individuals who produce masks and other protective gear from home, specialists who teach how to use masks and gloves online, among many other examples. The ability to develop a sense of empathy will become a key factor.
In times of survival, the magnitude of compulsive consumption of superfluous products and services that add no value to our lives is greatly exposed. Also, luxury goods will begin to be newly judged by the values they carry and the benefits that they offer. Other products and services will increase in positive perception as they are unexpectedly transformed into useful and/or comforting factors in this time of crisis. Greater awareness of our habits, with regard to the market, will lead to a redefinition of consumption priorities. Brands that understand the emotional shock their consumers are going through will enjoy greater positioning in a post-pandemic scenario. These brands will offer emotional support and respect for those feelings of shock, rather than desperately trying make an irrelevant sale. The push back towards some luxury brands that continued to advertise banal products in the midst of the health crisis is an example of the punishment that can befall insensitive brands. On the contrary, those companies that have managed to quickly empathize with social humor and are applying strategies to help solve public and private problems, due to the interruption of daily life and the growing health emergency, are the ones that are building a more loyal bond with their clients. It is clear now, more than ever before, that people are increasingly making value driven choices.
THE SEARCH FOR NEW MEANINGS
The growing dissatisfaction of many people with different aspects of their lives (work, social roles, city in which they live, etc.) could increase in these moments of forced isolation. This critical view of our way of life and how we are living in this world was already emerging prior to the pandemic. Far from the previous daily distractions and frenetic rhythm, now, in the solitude of their homes, many people are finding time to reflect and evaluate what brings true meaning to their lives. Surveys carried out in different countries in these weeks, show that wide swaths of the population want society to change "radically" and although they cannot specifically define or enumerate these changes, they do mention the proliferation of values such as well-being, conscience and solidarity.
RECONNECTING WITH SIMPLE, DAILY COMFORTS
Confinement has brought about a greater awareness of our immediate environment: our homes, and their ability to provide us with physical and emotional comfort. The situation is more critical in those homes that were not initially conceived as spaces in which people were meant to spend long hours of time - either because of functionality or size - but were meant to be simple “bases”. People are now rediscovering the home as a space to carry out multiple functions: living, producing, working, educating, socializing, and even taking refuge from a biological threat. The desire to feel comfortable in a home environment could lead to incorporating objects and buying clothing conceived for indoor life, guided by aesthetic rules that are very different from social ones, with a focus on fun, intimacy and functionality. The tendency to create “autonomous ecosystems” in the home (to produce food, energy and drinking water) could be fueled by this desire to achieve security in a threatening context.
THE REVALUATION OF PROXIMITY
The restriction of staying at home and only moving a few meters away to do necessary shopping, has forced people to pay more attention to their immediate environment. First of all, people are taking more notice of their neighbors and considering, maybe for the first time, the possibility of building ties with them. Questions may arise, such as: Have we made the best choice of neighborhood and street? For many people this has meant meeting the neighbors' face-to-face for the first time and offering gestures of courtesy. In times of crisis, those around us become vital partners in our collective and personal experience. The discovery and revaluation of local businesses is also significant. This could trigger in the future a greater frequency of purchases in local stores, not only because of the empathy built during the pandemic, but also because of the need to collaborate in the construction of a containment environment in the same neighborhood. In addition, community-managed, organic and healthy food home delivery services could be further boosted in the future because of their humane values.
THE ENHANCEMENT OF COLLECTIVE EFFERVESCENCE
This exceptional moment in history is encouraging us to find alternative ways of reinforcing the idea that we are part of something bigger, that we are not alone. The concept of collective effervescence was coined by the sociologist Émile Durkheim and was used to describe the social mechanism by which people need massive events in a single place (concert, demonstration, religious act, sporting event) in order to achieve collective excitement and to create a feeling of unity. Faced with the impossibility of meeting in person, people are looking for new ways to connect. This can be seen in the increasing scale of virtual events (hundreds of people connected in dancing, singing, and training, for example) or from the now popular participation in various collective actions from the window or balconies of people’s houses (such as the applause for healthcare workers). Millions, in fact, have reported these communal experiences as exciting and moving. In the future, the desire to experience these kinds of collective events could increase with a simultaneous rise in frequency as well as the emergence of new formats of execution.
THE STRENGTHENING OF IMMUNITY
Faced with a biological threat and a stressful and uncertain economic and social situation, people are rapidly adopting strategies to strengthen their bodies and minds. There is an increased awareness of the toxicity of the environment (especially in the realm of information) and the need to preserve oneself and stay as healthy as possible. In our 2023 Trend Report on Betterness, we had already identified the growing demand for strengthening the immune system, as well as acquiring personal tools to develop cognitive alertness and emotional health. In a post-coronavirus scenario, this desire will increase rapidly and will encourage the consumption of healthy foods, regenerative therapies, medicinal cosmetics, garments with antiseptic textiles, among other things. The traceability of the product offerings will have to guarantee that strict sanitation requirements have been met. Hygiene habits will acquire greater importance, as well as barriers put in place to avoid the spread of germs and sickness, all of which will modify our norms of social behavior in public and private spaces.
THE REDEFINITION OF THE DIGITAL SPACE
The need to continue living in the new normal of social distancing has found useful solutions on the internet. Many people are testing, for the first time, at least one new online tool: virtual fitness, remote work, e-learning education, and online shopping, among other things. But looking deeper, we are also finding that people are beginning to use their creativity in new ways in forming social interactions on digital platforms and services: online concerts by orchestras that assemble musicians who play their instruments from home, is a testament and confirmation of people’s ingenious nature. Countless innovations will emerge from this creative rumbling. In the future, the adoption of greater digital services will be inevitable. We estimate that this will happen in an extended way in those activities that clearly benefit from these functionalities (already available for years): education and remote working are the most obvious. E-commerce and m-commerce will also receive a strong boost, accelerating the transition towards online shopping habits with an impact on the retail ecosystem in general. The challenge for brands will be to provide more sensoriality to digital experiences and seamlessly connecting them with analog and human touchpoints.
THE CHALLENGE TO ON-DEMAND FREEDOM
The false, yet prevalent, feeling that everything around us is controllable, editable and consumable (products and social relationships) according to our preferences and whims, could suffer deeply in the face of the extreme limitations imposed by this new context. The inability to satisfy our desire of having everything under control and the lack of freedom in making choices will perhaps be a great source of frustration for many. The need to apply unprecedented strategies to overcome this moment has led many people to try products, services and experiences that were far from their previous preferences and that very probably were completely ruled out by algorithms - which are based on previous consumption behaviors. Going forward, people may start to assess their degree of market freedom more objectively and may become more open to what is different in order to combat the tedium of always consuming the same thing.
BACK TO HUMAN CONTACT
During social distancing, people are spending many hours making video calls to chat with friends or sharing moments with dispersed family members. Will the social gatherings be 100% online after the pandemic? We can affirm, with a high degree of certainty, that they won’t be. Prior to this situation, we had already noticed a certain fatigue related to virtual socialization, in addition to the fact that its exaltation caused the rise of severe psychological problems in a significant portion of the population. We can spend hours talking to everyone but, ultimately, we are alone in front of a screen. As we mentioned in our 2023 Betterness trend report, the power of experiencing human contact remains irreplaceable and transformative. The desire to reconnect analogically with others will intensify after this period of 100% digital interactions. We will be more aware of the importance of a hug or of being together and laughing together directly and in person. As Plato said: one extreme will always lead to another.
THE URGING OF ACTIONS ON A GLOBAL SCALE
The rapid reactions of countries around the globe and the extreme measures that have been taken (including completely stopping the economy) reveal that other urgent issues - such as climate change, for example - could be tackled with the same determination and speed. Scientific evidence reports that CO2 emissions have been drastically reduced in different regions of the world, improving the air quality of cities (in Paris, the air is 30% healthier). Some ecosystems are beginning to regenerate due to less human presence (turtles are returning to the now deserted tourist beaches of Brazil while fish proliferate in the clean and calm waters of a deserted Venice). Activism will receive a boost from the new evidence of man's harmful footprint, along with the emerging desire to create communities around a common interest and cause, in this particular case, the fight for the environment.
In the last 18 months, The Sprout Studio has monitored the emergence and evolution of many of these behaviors, values, desires, fears and demands, noting their progressive expansion among people around the world. Our latest articles, conferences and trend reports reflect in depth some of these social and market changes. It is now inevitable to monitor each of these emerging social trends on a regular basis, as their dynamics will be driven by the impact of the health crisis in each country. These antecedents along with the facts that we are currently observing allow us to affirm that the coronavirus pandemic could accelerate a transition to new systemic patterns, configuring a critical, solid mass capable of transforming the social and market paradigm. The most profound changes will take place only when people come to the realization that this exceptional situation could be repeated in the coming years and ask themselves: How do I want to face the next pandemic? The answers to that question will drive the actions that will redefine our future.