What does the post-COVID-19 South African consumer look like?

As South Africans are reaching the end of their Government’s pandemic management cycle, it seems as if the post-apocalyptic world is not the place many predicted it would be, and that the pandemic, reinforced as it has been by a recession, has not led to a host of new and sustainable consumer behaviours.

This is the conclusion from the final phase of a study conducted during lockdown by HaveYouHeard, a brand communications agency with a deep understanding that consumer behaviour and preferences are influenced by many factors, most notably the times we find ourselves in, often referred to as the Zeitgeist.

Acknowledging that different cultures across the globe would respond differently to the same pandemic, HaveYouHeard set out to contextualise South African consumers’ response, and how that impacted their lives in terms of their feelings, finances, shopping behaviour, and entertainment and socialising.

And, it turns out, the post-pandemic South African consumer is not that much different to the pre-pandemic iteration.

“That said, there are a number of significant challenges the post-pandemic South African consumer will have to face, noticeably on the financial and mental health fronts,” explained HaveYouHeard Head of Insights, Claudia Schonitz.

“Many, many South Africans have emerged from the pandemic with considerably less spending power. Not only will this put pressure on brands and businesses to fight for less, they will need to work harder to convince consumers to support them.

“At the same time, in a country that already boasts the highest levels of anxiety in the world, financial insecurity will acutely negatively affect its citizens’ emotional wellbeing. This will cause different responses in different people.

“Some will look to fight (in different ways such as activism, proactive positive action etc.), others will flee or look for escapism (emigrate or binge watch series), some will freeze (do nothing except experience increased levels of internal stress) while others will look to flock or herd (socialise, connect, laugh – or fight) in tribal groups.

“Brands will need to be cognisant of the evolving emotional state of their consumers across the different brand touchpoints, occasions and at the point of purchase.”

Schonitz admitted that behaviour has – of course – changed, and pointed out that the most noticeable shifts have been in three ‘domains’: social, home and e-commerce.

“When it comes to social, many people have realised just how much they need others and, over the next 12 months, connecting socially will be central to much of our activity and behaviour. Further, while many key purchase decisions were previously made based on status, badging and image, this has been stripped back for now. We anticipate these drivers will once again kick in as we start socialising more.

“At home, and in a way contradicting what I have just said, being at home has become a new comfort zone, unleashing new habits, rituals and comfort-providing activities. We have become better at not doing  much (while also doing more in the home) and enjoying it. This, I predict, is a behaviour that will persist for much longer.

“Finally, purchase behaviour has been forced online, but not in the whole and not with a sense of everlasting adoption. That said, this is a powerful new sales channel that brands need to take advantage of as it is scalable and efficient.

“While we are all aware that ecommerce is going to become a staple of many brand teams’ focuses, what the research has highlighted is that this loyalty is currently low. 81% of respondents shopping for groceries online stated that safety from COVID-19 is the biggest benefit to online grocery shopping, but only 27% claimed they were likely to continue once COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

“This highlights how brands need to proactively innovate further if they want to entrench ongoing online purchase,” Schonitz said.

She also cautioned that perhaps the biggest change to behaviour has yet to manifest itself – ideological in-grouping.

“The pandemic has affected us in one of two ways when it comes to germs and viruses: we either believe in the science and listen to what the experts say, or we believe in the conspiracy theories flouted across social media.

“What drives our reaction is ideological in-grouping, which is a fancy way of saying that we no longer evaluate issues as an individual and make up our own mind by weighing up the facts and arguments presented by both sides. Rather, we follow our tribe.

“Ideological in-grouping isn’t about what is right, rather who is right. So, badging, beliefs and behaviour are now set via association, or who you want to be seen with.

“And this relates to brands in the following way. There’s been for some time a growing expectation for these entities – brands, businesses, people – to make positive impacts on society and play responsible roles. These issues provide direction for what consumers care about, and what brands should prioritise when wanting to be seen as a positive and influential contributor to their community, tribe or country.”

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