Have customers really changed?

Emilie Tan

  • Marketing strategist, Alpha Digital
Emilie is a marketing strategist who relishes both the ‘heart’ and ‘science’ components of strategic planning, working closely with both client and agency teams to develop plans driven by business objectives, data, and research. She has worked across a diverse range of clients including, the Australian Department of Health, the Queensland Department of Transport & Main Roads, Stone & Wood Brewing Co, G.J. Gardner Homes and Petbarn.

The past 12 months have been a confronting time for marketers, with each week seemingly bringing a new challenge. Some of the more notable impacts have been customer-centric, driven by shifting priorities, new consumption habits and expectation transfer.  

It’s been difficult not only keeping up with these changes, but also quantifying them; understanding their impact in the short-term and, importantly, the likelihood they’ll have a lasting effect on the ways we engage with audiences.  

Looking at the conversations our team is having with clients, combined with the fresh whitepapers I receive in my inbox every week, it’s clear to me many of us are looking to the coming months as a time of reinvention.  

Some days, I feel confident in the claims about the ‘new normal’ and the different ways customers are embracing community, sustainability and tech. Other days, I’m tempted to brush it all off as nonsense. Do people ever really change?  

Both perspectives are valuable. After all, the grey space is where the best conversations are had - and the best ideas born. While it’s probably too early to tell whether customers are really making lasting changes in behaviour, there are three trends worth considering. Even if we’re not too sure where they’ll land just yet.

The privacy conversation

This month, iOS14 began rolling out to iPhones worldwide. One of the most notable changes impacting advertising is Apple’s ‘intelligent tracking prevention’, a new feature giving users explicit control over whether apps can use their data for advertising purposes.  

This is a monumental move from Apple designed to empower and protect customers. It also significantly impacts the way marketers reach customers and measure performance. However, the importance of catering to the new ‘privacy-conscious consumer’ might be a little overstated.  

Privacy is perhaps one of the best examples of highlighting the gap between self-reported and actual behaviour by consumers. Seventy per cent of Aussies say privacy matters to them. However data from GlobalWebIndex highlights 41 per cent of global consumers prefer to exchange their personal data for free services rather than pay for those services to safeguard their data.  

Take TikTok, for example. It’s an app repeatedly questioned on its data collection policies, yet it was also the most downloaded app globally in 2020. Similarly, the same people expressing concerns about privacy are also likely to be daily users of either Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp – platforms tech experts say aren’t much better than TikTok from a privacy perspective.  

We seem to care about privacy until protecting it requires us to forego a pleasant activity or break a social contract. Then, we’re a little more flexible.  

From a communications perspective, I’d be inclined to use shifts in cookie policies by big tech as an opportunity to insert yourself into the privacy conversation in a meaningful and ethical way. But at this stage, it's unclear whether customers will actually shift their consumption habits, and reward privacy-first brands, if they feel their data isn’t being protected.

Pressure to find purpose 

The events of 2020 saw enormous pressure on brands to find and communicate their purpose, and participate in activism, whether social or environmental. If you’ve read anything about Gen Z recently, you’ll know that purpose is the word of the moment.   

A survey completed by Facebook found 79 per cent of Gen Z believe it's become more important for companies to behave sustainably. More broadly, research from GlobalWebIndex indicates that 41 per cent of people want brands to focus more on supporting social causes due to the pandemic.  

Similar to privacy, the gap between self-reported and actual behaviours is important to note. In other words, people say they like brands to be purpose-driven, but it’s unclear whether that actually influences share of wallet.  

Particularly when it comes to brand activism, research shows that when brands take a stand on a social issue, it’s unlikely to positively influence consumer behaviour. A study published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing found brand activism produced minimal change in people who agreed with the stance, and angered those that didn’t. This asymmetric effect is observed in a number of pieces of research and emphasises the lofty concept of purpose as a driver of sales.  

As Gen Z’s purchasing power grows, this one is going to be an interesting ‘watch this space’. Is purpose a valuable tool for businesses who want to have a positive impact on society? Absolutely. Is Gen Z going to abandon you if you don’t actively communicate your purpose, or take a stance on social issues? Probably not.  

One thing’s for sure, if we reach a tipping point in the future where purpose becomes a more reliable predictor of profit, the brands who already have an authentic purpose baked into their business will have a powerful head start.  

Evolving expectations

It’s undeniable COVID-led digital transformation has altered the way consumers interact with brands. Data from McKinsey highlights the digitisation of customer interactions has been accelerated by several years, with brands launching digital or digitally-enhanced offerings at a much greater rate than previously seen.  

It’s an exciting time to be working in digital, but predicting the death of bricks-and-mortar retail is probably a little bold. Research from Euromonitor and Google reminds us most purchases will still be made offline by 2024. However, the same study also found retailers with a strong digital offering will gain additional sales in the next five years.  

A seamless, integrated experience is undoubtedly the North Star we should all be aiming for, and brands shouldn’t ignore the shifts in consumer expectations that have occurred as a result of the pandemic. But we should be wary of dealing in absolutes.  

Anyone who tells you a frictionless customer experience is ‘essential’ obviously hasn’t waited in a digital queue for festival tickets or the latest Travis Scott collab. It’s a little cheeky providing examples that deal in brand equity and exclusivity, but I think it’s important to remember customers are actually willing to put up with a lot more than you think, providing your product or service addresses an unmet need.  

It seems obvious, but taking an agile approach is the best way to identify which CX levers are going to have the greatest impact on sales. What first party data is available for you to validate your assumptions? Can you test a low fidelity version of the experience with a small segment of your audience? Is there an app or plugin that already provides the feature you’re looking to build?

Optimism is important

The most productive and insightful conversations I have with clients are the ones that are human-centred, focused on the person at the heart of it all – their customer. Brands that focus on being part of their customers' lives are more successful, making it all the more important to base strategic planning in reality.  

Optimism is a powerful force in communications, but it’s equally important to interrogate our own biases, and use a more critical lens when looking to the future. We need to constantly remind ourselves to focus on who our customers really are, rather than who we hope they might be.


Tags: consumer engagement, marketing strategy

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