Tiffany Tivasuradej and Christopher Brewer
Behavioural Science
Social Distancing Is a Complete Bunch of BS. This Is How You Turn That to Your Advantage.

You read that right. Social Distancing is a bunch of behavioural science – and that’s precisely how brands need to think about it when managing their recovery. 

There are many terms for the new behaviours. Lockdown, Circuit Breaker, Shutdown, อยู่บ้านหยุดเชื้อเพื่อชาติ, (literally ‘at home, stop infection for nation’) – and for behavioural science even the terms used will influence people’s changing actions and attitudes.

Humans are successful as a species precisely because they rapidly adapt their behaviour to cope with changes in the surrounding environment. We’re witnessing an unprecedented period of rapid fire behavioural shifts across Asia in the wake of Covid-19. From panic shopping for daily necessities (highest in Japan, where 64% of shoppers ages 18-60 have admitted to this according to Kantar), to an explosion of viral user generated TikTok dances, and Zoom calls for practically everything (office meetings, school, birthday parties etc.). As behaviour shifts, whether rationally or irrationally, day-to-day habits and expectations also shift. Being able to make sense of the new normal and knowing how to respond is just as much a challenge for brands as it is for people, especially those brands aiming to survive across multiple markets in Asia.

Let’s take for example the practice of social distancing. Each nation describes it differently.  Singapore calls it ‘circuit breaker’ (stop the transmission chain, flatten the curve), while Thailand takes an even more direct stance: #อยู่บ้านหยุดเชื้อเพื่อชาติ, literally ‘at home, stop infection for nation’, although กักตัว (‘confine/restrict body’) is more common among Thai netizens. It’s not just terms that differ across borders. Consumer response to social difference is likewise culturally distinct from one market to the next. For example, eating in takes on many different meanings. South Korea and Thailand have opted for more home deliveries and takeaways (Nielsen, 2020). By contrast, millions of Chinese citizens, particularly the urban youth, have rediscovered the joy of home cooking and shifted away from the regular comforts of eating out (Straits Times, 2020).

With so much happening, brands must keep pace to stay relevant. As a rapid response to social distancing, many like Nike, Coca-Cola and Volkswagen have chosen to reposition their messaging and logos in support (CNN, 2020). Offering a supportive presence at a time of uncertainty does help reinforce brand authority. However, since consumers in Asia ‘want almost everything from brands’ (Campaign Asia, 2019), just sounding reassuring is clearly not enough. Before committing to action, it’s vital that brands have a holistic understanding of what is driving the current needs and behaviours of their consumers. Recent developments make it clear that reaction to the situation defies simple interpretation.  Typical market research interprets behaviour by asking consumers ‘why are you doing this?’ But that’s unlikely to yield helpful responses at a time of frenzied stockpiling of toilet paper, and furious debate over wearing masks or not.

This is where behavioural science comes neatly into play.  Crucially it assumes that we make decisions and do things based largely on how we feel. This in contrast to the reasoning assumed to underlie behaviour in traditional economics. That’s why, in the current context, it can help us explain why panic shopping for toilet paper is a common psychological response to scarcity or FOMO for essential basic needs (The Guardian, 2020). Or why risk aversion and loss of perceived control relates to the choice of whether or not to wear masks (Business Insider, 2020). Or even why the nostalgia effect may be what’s driving the sudden urge to indulge in comfort foods like wagyu beef and cart noodles as a stress reliever amidst the uncertainty (Fortune, 2020; SCMP, 2020). Et cetera.

While traditional market research makes conclusions around what consumers are doing based on observable, typically quantitative trends, behavioural science takes a different approach. It borrows principles and methods from psychology and other social sciences to connect the dots between our emotions and thoughts and how they impact what we do and choose. Because in truth, there’s a huge gap between what we say we’ll do and what we actually do. Many of us can say we’ll commit to a healthy diet, but then actually doing so is a completely different story. Just think back to how many quarantinis and Dalgona coffees we’ve all had whilst working from home recently (or is that just me?).

Ultimately, behavioural science helps brands focus on human insights. Even more importantly, it also offers clues to the ‘what to do about it’. For example, better hygiene is clearly a top priority. Obviously, it’s possible to make a statement about this through branded communications. However 78% of consumers globally want brands to take action and help rather than just talk about it. So a more relevant response here would be to help consumers form new habits, with existing or new products, for better hygiene. When it comes to forming new habits, behavioural science can provide a nifty 3-step habit formation model (remind/cue, routine and reward) that can guide brands in doing so.

In short, turning to behavioural science to stay afloat during such fluid times of behaviour change means a more human first approach which is crucial in making brands matter. Fortunately, there have been many excellent resources that can help brands put behaviour first in what to do currently. Amongst our favourite guides are those from Warc, IPSOS, and the Behavioural Insights Team. But aside from responding today, it’s important that brands also prepare for the next phase once the turbulence recedes. So in terms of what’s next for brands, here’s some food for thought:

  • Moving forward, consider repositioning brand voice and actions to be human first
    • There is always a natural tendency to fear that the turbulence will repeat once it’s over. Trust is what everyone needs, and therefore should be what brands tackle first. This can be conveyed in simple communications focused on highlighting product quality and safety, as opposed to prestige and brand name.
    • Through the turbulence, social values like safety and security have emerged as top priorities. The implication for brands therefore is to consider a refined positioning that reflects these values in their mission and vision. In particular, the ‘home’ has become reinforced as a safe haven across many markets. This does not mean that all brands now have to create new products specifically for the home. Rather, brands should think tactically about how existing products can address this human association. For automotive brands, consider positioning around the car that helps consumers get home safely. Supporting this with communications regarding physical safety and hygiene features (e.g. air filtration) will help to further reinforce this positioning.
  • Rethink both how and where you engage
    • With the rapid rise of TikTok, many brands have been pushed to rethink their online engagement channels and strategies. However, once the turbulence is over, we will have to re-examine whether it is wise to continue using TikTok as a sustainable brand engagement channel alone. Taking a human first view by understanding key touchpoints and moments of truths in a consumer’s everyday journey is a much safer approach than strategizing for customer engagement by channel. Doing this will help brands understand not only where to engage but also how best to engage depending on the key needs and tensions at each point. Packaging this into an omnichannel engagement strategy would be the ultimate goal as we move forwards into the new normal. 
  • Be ready to innovate ready for newly formed habits
    • We’ve all been dreaming of what we can do when social distancing measures have been lifted. We will all be going out. Making a branded statement regarding new priorities for consumers, such as better hygiene, quality and safety, is important. However, being able to show proof of this through new customer experiences is what will ultimately reinforce consumer confidence and offer reasons to buy in. Whether it’s about redesigning air filtration systems in cars for a healthier drive, or simply adding visual cues emphasising a retailer’s commitment to better hygiene in stores, the possibilities are truly endless. Being flexible with regard to behavioural changes and adopting an agile approach to innovation are must-do’s for all organisations intent on innovating for the new habits that have formed.
  • Leverage data to predict future behaviour change
    • Whether the turbulence will be repeated remains unknown. If yes, then naturally what’s been trialled and tested can be reapplied to help brands stay afloat. However, if a completely different wave of turbulence comes, new behavioural shifts will be inevitable. To avoid being wrong-footed or paralysed during the uncertainty it’s important for brands to be one step ahead of their customers. Setting up internal data capabilities and running regular customers analytics is critical for brands to know how to respond to new behavioural shifts and needs. If we get it right brands can position to respond to new behaviours even before the customers have formed them.
    • Internally, recognise and affirm new workplace norms Companies have reinvented day-to-day office processes so they work whilst everyone’s stuck at home. From Zoom meetings to virtual workshops on Miro, behavioural science tells us that once habits are formed it is hard to turn back. As a result, companies that have yet to fully transform digitally should include this in their recovery roadmap. 

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