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The market for uniqueness is likely to grow in importance. (HT)
The market for uniqueness is likely to grow in importance. (HT)

How the coronavirus is changing consumption patterns

  • Digital technology has changed our relationship with each other and with the world
  • The smartphone, which has virtually become a part of our body, gives us a layer of intelligence and connectedness that vastly augments our awareness of and engagement with the world

In a special three-part series for Mint, marketing expert Santosh Desai, managing director and chief executive officer of Futurebrands Ltd, looks at the evolution of the new Indian consumer who is being shaped not just by the pandemic but other changes around him. In the first piece, Desai talks about the emergence of the mindful consumer, making more evolved and meaningful brand choices:

Liberalization transformed the Indian consumer landscape in the 1980s and 90s. Technology has played a similar role in the past few years. Our conventional understanding of how consumers think, what they aspire to and how to wish to present themselves in the future needs to undergo a complete overhaul. And now, to add to that, covid has come charging into our lives, changing everything. What does this confluence of forces augur for the consumer of the future? In the series beginning today, we will examine some of the deeper changes that we are likely to witness as well as explore the ways in which the pandemic is likely to change things.

Digital technology has changed our relationship with each other and with the world. More fundamentally, it has changed our relationship with our own selves. The smartphone, which has virtually become a part of our body, gives us a layer of intelligence and connectedness that vastly augments our awareness of and engagement with the world. It helps us to experience ourselves as individuals in a visceral way. We become the centre of the world, as we go about liking, swiping, clicking, blocking, following, muting, sharing, posting and selfie-ing as we please. The selfie, which by itself symbolizes the needs of the times, is a form of the rapid prototyping of the self. The ability of individuals to be acutely aware of themselves and to construct themselves bit by bit is the single most important shift brought about by digital empowerment.

In future, consumption is going to be a critical part of this quest to realise themselves as individuals. The act of ‘filling out’ the self will be carried increasingly by curated acts of consumption. The emergence of the ‘image-backwards’ consumer, who first creates a version of herself she wished to be and then sets out to achieve it, is likely to gain ground. Fashion, beauty, food, even healthcare are categories that will play key roles in the consumer’s quest for self-definition.

The market for uniqueness is likely to grow in importance. It will no longer be enough for consumers to try and reach a universal ideal; the search for an expression of what makes one uniquely different is likely to take precedence. This is a big change in mindset, and signals new confidence in consumers that emboldens them to dwell on what sets them apart rather than what makes them belong to their reference group.

Along with the more conscious adoption of consumption in the exercise of identity-building, we will see the rise of the professional consumer. This is already beginning to happen; the people we call influencers are semi-professional consumers, whose self-appointed job is to serve as the advance party for consumption. They help the rest of us make better consumption choices by sampling the available range of choices, and making recommendations basis their preferences and inclinations. The emergence of consumption as a full-fledged career option is on the cards, as consumption becomes an ever more central part of our lives.

If the need to stand out is a key driver of emerging consumer behaviour, so is the need to belong. Already, social media has helped us connect with familiar and unfamiliar sets of people in new ways, and this trend will only deepen in the times to come. New collectives are likely to emerge and, given the experience with social media today, these are likely to be simultaneously more experimental and selective in nature. The need for connections will be more specific and nuanced.

How will covid impact the consumer need for identity creation? The forced isolation of the last few months has helped give people a chance to live more intensely with themselves and distil facets that are truly central to their identity. They have added some facets to themselves (self-education, cooking experiments, new skills) and discarded others. In terms of consumption, they have been forced to live frugally and have learnt to distinguish between what is really needed and gives them pleasure and what does not.

This is likely to lead to a more evolved relationship with consumption. The move towards more meaningful consumption was already underway, and the covid experience is going to accelerate that shift. Habit-driven buying is likely to give way to more thoughtful and selective consumption. Categories like fashion will, in particular, face the challenge of relevance, and will need to evolve a new vocabulary. It is not that fashion will not be important, but that its meaning and manifestation will need to change. Brands will need to offer a stronger reason for their existence and define in more precise terms what value they add to the consumer’s life. While brands that pursue a real purpose will be valued, consumers will have little time for poseurs. There will be a sharp distinction between two kinds of brands—between the effortless brands—the brands that come from a genuine wellspring of belief which will find it easy to connect with consumers since all their actions will be naturally branded, and brands that try to say all the right things; which will struggle. Done right, the discipline of marketing, as we know it, will dissolve into every other function.

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