How marketers can beat the odds in the face of shifting consumer behaviour

Consumer behaviour is shifting as a result of the lockdown and, as marketers, we need to expect and design for unreliability.

Consumer behaviour is notoriously difficult to predict. Why? Simply, humans are emotional creatures, rather than rational. Jill Bolte Taylor, a famous neuroanatomist who studied her own stroke, said: "Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think." This means humans are hugely unreliable. As David Ogilvy remarked famously: "People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say."

As marketers, the overriding unreliability of human beings means that trying to predict consumer behaviour can often feel like a trip to the casino. We go in hope, excitement, expectation and trepidation; we know the odds are stacked against us but think maybe, just maybe, tonight will be our lucky night.

Arguably, Amazon’s success is in large part down to the fact that it has exploited consumer behaviour better than most. Amazon doesn’t just sell everyday products, it sells instant gratification. Amazon knows that people behave impulsively, especially when it comes to everyday shopping, and so has placed a big bet on that understanding, designing the entire customer experience and its underpinning logistics operation with that in mind.

But all too often brands lose. Coca-Cola’s New Coke disaster is one famous example of a corporation betting big on future consumer behaviour and getting it disastrously wrong.

Then, as if predicting consumer behaviour wasn’t hard enough, the lockdown hit. The busiest places on Earth became scenes from apocalyptic zombie films. We stayed at home. We stopped commuting; polluted places such as Delhi became places of calmness. We stopped travelling; tourist traps – such as Venice, where jellyfish were spotted in the settled waters – breathed once more.

And human behaviour went a bit, well… wonky. We started experimenting out of necessity. We developed new exercise regimes. We became bakers. We cut our own hair. But, as we emerge from lockdown, what’s on the horizon?

The International Monetary Fund states that the world economy will experience the worst recession since the Great Depression. Some hope that the lockdown will lead to lasting societal and environmental change – a feeling perfectly captured by Tomos Roberts in his poem The Great Realisation.

While no-one knows for sure which consumer behaviours will hold and which will fold, we are able to draw the following lessons from companies that are more successful than most at understanding, and acting on, consumer behaviour.

1 Be prepared to lose

A gambler has to have the right mindset in order to succeed. And companies are no different. For instance, Amazon’s culture embraces failure – and even expects it. Decisions aren’t seen as irreversible. And because it’s prepared to lose, it’s much more likely to win.

2 Adopt an experimental approach

Just as any gambler must be open to new approaches and play the table based on what they see, successful masters of consumer behaviour are no different. Monzo (pictured, top) is a great example of this, with a constant experimental and iterative approach feeding its experience design and development roadmaps.

3 Learn fast

Experiments are fine as long as lessons are learned quickly, otherwise making mistakes gets expensive – just ask any gambler. Slack is a great case study in this regard. It wasn’t always an internal communication tool and struggled to articulate its value to prospective clients in the early days. But using a design sprint (from problem to validated prototype in one week), it was able to articulate its proposition in a way that exploited changing consumer behaviour – something that has helped the brand to spearhead its massive growth.

4 Be objective

Just as good gamblers put their emotions aside, one key trait for predicting consumer behaviour is being critically objective. And that objectivity comes from customers. Involving them to provide an objective view is critical – you just need to capture and caveat it in the right way. This is something that KLM mastered with the creation of its X Gates space in Schiphol Airport, used for quickly validating proof-of-concepts in a real environment.

5 Spot patterns

Successful gamblers aren’t afraid of maths in their quest to beat the odds. Now marketers can bring together disparate date sets to build a connected view of consumer behaviour that we can use to increase the likelihood of making the right decisions – using observed behaviour rather than claimed. and Netflix are great examples of companies using data to understand consumer behaviour and shape digital experiences on an ongoing basis.  

Undoubtedly, consumer behaviour is shifting as a result of the lockdown. The trick is knowing which behaviours are experimental, abandoned, emerging and established for the long term. As marketers, we need to expect and design for unreliability, learn the lessons of companies that are adept at exploiting consumer behaviour and bet big on what won’t change rather than what will.

And then we might just beat the odds.

Matt Holt is chief strategy officer at Digitas

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