Pivots from the pandemic that are here to stay

Zharmer Hardimon / March 2021

For the past year, as the entire world reeled from the effects of a pandemic, many companies were in a continual scramble to figure out how — and even if — they should move forward with day-to-day business. Some sectors, like travel, saw astounding disruption. Others, like online retail, saw an opportunity for growth.

Whatever sector you happened to be in, you had to consider the right marketing approach. We all spent the better part of the year rethinking how we did everything. And to that end, we thought it was worth a look back at the last year to see some of the biggest changes — and the pivots that will remain.

Icons for 4 big changes we saw in 2020: Store & magnifying glass: Consumer habits saw tectonic shifts. Laptop & checkmark: Events went virtual. House with an office setup: Work went home. Smartphone & shopping basket: Online shopping became the norm.

Consumer habits saw tectonic shifts

As lockdowns took hold around the world, people scrambled to get what they needed where they could. But with stores completely closed or out of stock of necessities — remember the runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer? — they turned to search to find answers. Search interest related to retail spiked globally in the early months. Searches for “who has” and “in stock” were up over 8,000% year over year in the U.S.1 And as people limited their trips to grocery stores, there was growing search interest in things like “can you freeze” in the U.K.2 and “home delivery” (“livraison à domicile”) in France.3

There was also the very real issue of economic anxiety. In G-7 countries, 71% of people said their personal income had or would be impacted by the coronavirus, according to a March 2020 Kantar study. This was highest in Italy (85%), the U.S. (75%), and Canada (75%).4 A BCG report found that people who were anticipating changes in their spending habits expected to save more (29%) and spend less (27%) on nonessential items, such as fashion and luxuries.5

A line drawing of a cracked piggy bank is inside a green circle graph, representing the following stat: 71% of people said their personal income had or would be impacted by the coronavirus.

A higher level look at search for the year showed that people were seeking to gain control of what they could during times of uncertainty. Searches for “online learning” were up 400% as parents sought inspiration, solutions, and comfort.6 And with gyms closed, searches for fitness apps jumped 200% year over year.7

People were also trying to find ways to cultivate connections in a world where they were cut off from their old lives. Searches that included the phrase “with friends online” were up 300% year over year.8 And that didn’t go away. From November to January, searches for “watch party” (for example, “youtube watch party” or “private watch party”) grew 400% year over year for the same time period.9

Trying to keep up with continually shifting patterns is one reason we launched our monthly global insights briefing.

Pivot that became permanent: To better respond to rapid shifts in consumer behavior, brands created real-time insights tracking, elevated insights within their organizations, and established new processes to quickly act on their discoveries. This new reality will ensure brands are positioned to lead with insights.

Events went virtual

Cannes. Auto shows. Advertising Week. Even Google’s own GML. Last year saw the unprecedented cancellation of major industry events and conferences, and events marketing teams were forced to rethink everything. Even the fashion industry moved the catwalk to YouTube. While “digital events” seemed like the easy answer, not every event translated well to a virtual one. And while many an organizer wanted their virtual events to be live — or as live as possible — the reality was that, with every company considering live streams, potential attendees were suffering from live-stream overload — particularly when you factored in how many of them were already spending the bulk of their working days at home, glued to virtual meetings. Google’s events team came up with a list of questions to ask to help you decide which digital event format is right for you, as well as a guide to hosting virtual events on YouTube.

Pivot that became permanent: Live events will certainly return, but they'll look different. People will think twice about traveling when they can easily log in from their living room. And that means events will need to be tailored to deliver an experience that truly stands out.


Work went home

Even before social distancing and sheltering in place, home was becoming the logistical headquarters for busy people looking to make better use of their time. Whether it was skipping the commute or the line at the grocery store, online searches and shopping habits prior to the pandemic indicated a desire by people to spend more of their time on pursuits that give them joy, pleasure, or comfort (and less of it sitting in traffic). But with entire teams working remotely for an indefinite amount of time, companies found themselves seeking ways to maintain a sense of community and to foster inclusion.

Pivot that became permanent: The in-office work model has likely changed forever, shifting consumer habits and workplace cultures. For businesses, this means finding ways to meet people’s most basic needs and taking steps to foster a more resilient workforce.


Online shopping became the norm

E-commerce had been steadily growing, but 2020 saw online shopping take off, fueled by necessity. There was a meaningful increase in the number of people willing to buy groceries, clothing, and even cars online. In the first six months of 2020, for example, nearly 10% of cars were sold online, compared with just 1% of cars sold online during all of 2018.

Ultimately, what a shopper wants is help, whether it’s buying a car or trying to figure out who has sanitizer. When they actively seek that help in the digital realm, it becomes easier for companies with the tools to read the intent signals and the right marketing plans in place to provide that help.

Pivot that became permanent: Around the world people have discovered online shopping for the first time, while others have simply increased their reliance on it. Curbside pickup and personal shopper programs have become the norm. And new, more convenient habits, certainly won’t be forgotten post-pandemic.


It’s time to rethink ready

The agility necessary to pivot and the resilience learned from surviving led to a focus on the basics. Brands doubled down on insights, stayed agile through automation, and made data-driven decisions. And as a result, those brands have managed to not only survive the last year but thrive.

Emerging from the pandemic, businesses have more data and consumer signals, are better able to act on them, and can meet a higher standard for doing all of this more responsibly than ever before. Still, disruption and uncertainty remain, necessitating that businesses rethink readiness. As we look to the year ahead, we should all be working to reimagine how to best meet consumer demand, even as it fluctuates, and even if it remains volatile.

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