Consumer Insights and Coronavirus: How Behavioral Science and Memory Immersion Help Reveal Truth During a Pandemic

At the beginning of the year, no one imagined that 2020 would be defined by a global pandemic. Nonetheless, in a matter of weeks, the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus forced businesses to reconsider their plans for the year. In the blink of an eye, conventional assumptions about consumer behavior became irrelevant.

The doors of most businesses may still be closed, but the marketplace has remained in motion. With supply chains fractured, supermarket shelves stripped bare, and schedules thrown into disarray, consumers have adjusted quickly to the ‘new normal’ making fundamental changes in their habits. As Charles Duhigg observed in his 2012 book The Power of Habit, it’s in times of significant social transition that consumers form new brand relationships, and leave once-trusted brands behind. Businesses that wait to respond until the dust has settled will risk losing the opportune moment before new habits of consumption become solidified.

In this global crisis, the data that businesses need to engage in granular tactical planning isn’t available. The context that made previously-established predictive models of consumer behavior valid has been shattered. In order to remain relevant, brands need to focus on the existential questions that undergird their strategies, centered around the core values that will enable them to maintain trusting relationships with consumers through the challenges that lay ahead.

Adapting to the impact of coronavirus will require more than reassuring messages to consumers and flexibility in the workplace. As reported here through a Social Inquiry deep dive, how people adapted early on in the crisis and the struggles they shared through social media platforms, reflects how rapid behavior changes. To the same extent, businesses need to adapt and support to the rapidly evolving needs of their customers and their employees.

The crisis is a test of character for businesses, giving them the chance to embody the purpose behind their work and the promise of their brands. To understand how to appropriately demonstrate their commitment will require businesses to listen to their customers’ and employees’ hopes and fears with a degree of empathy beyond what online surveys can offer.

A Human Connection in a Time of Quarantine

To gain a genuinely human understanding of consumer motivation, under ordinary circumstances, face-to-face interaction is the gold standard. But these are not ordinary circumstances. As long as strict social distancing guidelines remain in place, in-person interviews and observation will be impossible.

Remote methods of market research are the only option that’s available right now. The good news is that remote research doesn’t need to be remote.

If done correctly, there is no actual difference in the depth of insights uncovered from in-person and remote market research, even though there is a difference in the experience.

Never have we felt the urgency of face-to-face human contact so keenly. Never has it been more impossible to achieve that contact. Nonetheless, even across the distance, the heart of human connection remains true.

As they turn to remote research, businesses will need something more deft than just standard interviewing techniques with digital video conferencing tacked on as an afterthought. They will require time-tested research methods specifically designed to break through the social distance.

The Transcendent Power of Memory

For years, Brandtrust has specialized in crafting research methods that bring emotional authenticity to remote market research. The key to our approach is to use the unique space created through digital tools to deepen the human interaction between researchers and respondents.

Long before the advent of smartphones and social media, Brandtrust’s research pioneered the design of the emotional aspects of online experiences. We’ve found that the most profound aspects of digital spaces comes from the humanity we bring to it. In this spirit, Brandtrust has harnessed the potential of online connection to create multiple research methods that help respondents to move their consciousness across time and space using their biological capacity for their visual memory to share story-based experiences.

Using one of our visualization-based interviewing methods, Emotional Inquiry®, Brandtrust researchers guide respondents through a virtual journey that takes them through the most pivotal moments of their lives. This technique enables us to access emotional motivations in a psychologically authentic context regardless of the location in which the interview takes place. Although respondents’ bodies don’t move during the interviews, their consciousness does, as they re-experience the events and emotions that provoke their decisions as consumers.

The visual exploration of memory works best when people have their eyes closed, so that they can focus on moments from the past without the distraction of the present environment. For this reason, we have respondents close their eyes even when we’re in the same room as them. We sit together, never leaving our chairs, traveling somewhere else, together.

The same shared immersion in memory takes place when we interview people over a distance. In these cases, although our visualization-based interviews are enabled by digital communications technology, the technology isn’t the point. Our focus remains on the vivid emotional lives of the people we’re interviewing and the stories they share. Within just a few minutes after we’ve helped respondents log on, they’re no longer looking at the screen in front of them. With their eyes closed, they have begun an inward journey that is a world apart from the distraction and distance that are typical of remote market research.

Once respondents open up their inner worlds of visual memory, we allow them to linger and guide us through their impressions and emotions in a slow and gentle way. Respondents’ own reality, and their reactions to it, direct the course of our interviews, working with us to construct models of motivation that are as unique as they are evocative. Our Grounded Theory approach allows us to draw out rich insight from immersive questioning that emerge from respondents’ own point of view. From the visual cues in their memory, we carefully scaffold up to their higher motivations, finding the links between emotion and concrete experience.

This patient approach to immersion in memory brings market research what it needs most right now: The ability to take respondents outside of their confinement in their homes. Although the coronavirus crisis prevents consumers from physically leaving their homes to meet us for an interview, we can use the power of memory to meet them in the most decisive moments of their lives, even when those moments are long ago and far away.

Brandtrust has used multiple methods of narrative and visualization-based interviews as a form of remote market research for over two decades across thousands of projects in categories that span the entire breadth of our commercial culture, from healthcare to home maintenance, from travel to toilet paper. With every study, we refine our approach to emotion and memory, yielding actionable results that can’t be obtained any other way.

Brandtrust recently completed original research using these same narrative and visualization-based research methods, Emotional Inquiry and Narrative Inquiry, to understand the human experience in the time of COVID-19 and how individuals make meaning during times of uncertainty. We believe that the rich insights uncovered can be translated into evocative thought starters and guidelines that help brands create an experience that is aligned with the human experience. Through these efforts, organizations have an opportunity to reconsider strategies that no longer apply and, instead, illuminate and reshape how they engage and connect with their customers moving forward.

The businesses that survive the COVID-19 crisis will be those that seize the opportunity to forge deeper, emotionally authentic relationships of trust with their customers. No one can know what the marketplace will look like when people emerge from their homes again, but we can be confident that for businesses to thrive, the new business landscape will require them to learn how to reach out and touch the hearts of consumers across the distances that remain.

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