Merkle is out with its Q3 2021 Media Insights Report, and in it, there are tons of great insights worth reading. Among them are those regarding the fundamental changes brought to the U.S. economy by the COVID-19 pandemic—changes that remind us that, even once the U.S. economy is back at full steam, it may not look exactly like the economy that existed before the pandemic. That means that marketing and print production won’t either.
The report opens with discussion of the impact of COVID-19 on the B2B and B2C worlds. Within moments of starting into this section, the reader is reminded of a critical point: that as with all data on continually evolving situations, this data is a snapshot in time. Unlike data on things like the growth of high-speed inkjet pages and changes in direct mail volume, which are on consistent and predictable trajectories (at least for the foreseeable future), we should all hold this data lightly. Not because there is anything wrong with the data, but because it is constantly changing based on events on the ground.
The subhead to the section is the “Evolving Normal.” In it, the authors strike a hopeful tone: “With more people getting vaccinated and the CDC easing guidelines, a more ‘normal’ fall is in sight in the U.S.” However, the report indicates that “40% of the US population [is] fully vaccinated,” which means that this section was written back in May 2021 before the widespread emergence of the more aggressive delta variant. At that time, it did appear that COVID-19 infections were shrinking rapidly toward a level at which the virus would no longer have a major impact on public life. But that didn’t happen—delta variant did. As a result, things changed yet again. Today, what the writers of the report forecast to be “a return to normal” may end up being a return to a mid-pandemic normal rather than a pre-pandemic one.
But how long will even this shift last? It depends on something none of us can predict: the virus itself and its impact on consumer fears, attitudes, and priorities.
Before the emergence of the delta variant, one-third of the U.S. population indicated that they would never take the COVID-19 vaccine, but with the emergence of that variant, which doesn’t act like the COVID-19 OG (and now is wreaking havoc in communities with lower vaccination rates), and with many public and private entities requiring proof of vaccination for employment and entry, many previously hesitant Americans are finding themselves on the other end of Operation Warp Speed. As vaccination rates accelerate once again, the pendulum could swing back to “normal” yet again.
What is a marketing (and PSP) to do? The key words are “preparedness” and “flexibility.” When you look at reports like Merkle’s, you see three categories of trends waxing and waning:
- Temporary changes in consumer and business behavior specifically tied to the pandemic.
- Temporary changes in consumer and business behavior resulting from the reopening of the U.S. economy; and
- Long-term changes in consumer and business behavior that initially arose as a result of the pandemic but that have now become expectations and standards, such as contactless purchasing, virtual healthcare, and ease of returns for online orders.
Merkle’s recommendation? “Be nimble to adapt to your shoppers’ shifting behaviors. Omnichannel options and seamless experiences will be more important than ever.” I would add that “nimble” can be defined as hoping for—but not counting on—buyer behavior predicated on full openness of the U.S. economy, while being proactive in investing in technologies, workflows, and processes that give you the flexibility to move in either direction: open or closed.
If you’re looking for data to count on—trends that aren’t likely to shift with the viral winds—focus on those that may have initially arisen due as adaptations to the pandemic but are likely to persist because they are just good business and consumers have embraced them as their new normal. E-grocery shopping, for example, is here to stay. Other examples include changes brought by the increased use of artificial intelligence (indeed, 41% of companies have accelerated their AI strategies during the pandemic), and increased acceptance of QR Codes, which is now enabling faster adoption of augmented reality. The list goes on.
Each one of these has impacts for the worlds of marketing and print production. This includes when and how business targets are reached (with flexible work environments creating real challenges for geotargeted marketing, for example), the impact of the growth of AR on direct marketing, and shifting channel preferences as just a few examples.
So when it comes to thinking about the impact of the pandemic on business going forward, think bigger than rebounding marketing budgets. Think how the world has fundamentally changed, how buyer expectations have changed, and where you need to flex and pivot (and invest) in order to adapt to a buyer’s world that is looking increasingly different from the one even one year ago.