Here in New York City, COVID-19 vaccinations are opening to all residents ages 16 and up; the fluttering arrival of warmer weather and easing of restrictions are lifting spirits and drawing locals out to the parks and sidewalk restaurants. As the world gradually starts to recover, marketing leaders are asking a burning question: Are the consumer changes we’ve witnessed over the past year here to stay?

While we heartily agree that brands must put consumers at the front of every business decision during the next phases of pandemic management and eventual pandemic eradication, CMOs must be careful to measure the right things that provide an accurate, comprehensive, and predictive understanding of consumers. Although it’s tempting to view the pandemic as a finite period in time and bucket consumer behaviors into “pre-pandemic” and “post-pandemic” states, over two decades of deep global consumer research remind us of the reality that:

  • Consumers have always been in a state of flux. Even before the onset of the pandemic, consumers’ drive for empowerment was apparent in seemingly random behaviors and demands — from the hyperadoption and hyperabandonment of emerging devices to the rising voices of values-based consumers. Because the pandemic has further sensitized consumers to risks that threaten their well-being, consumers will continue to experiment with new ways of harnessing technology to build resilience.
  • Constant consumer change is a defining element of the “new normal.” Although consumers feel deeply nostalgic when they reflect on their pre-pandemic lifestyle, most are now keenly aware that there will be no quick and easy return to life as they knew it: Only 16% of US online adults believe that they will revert to a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy after the pandemic subsides, and 75% say that the pandemic and related crises will drive long-term changes in their behaviors and preferences.
  • Consumers notoriously underestimate how much more they will change over time. Consumers often exaggerate how much they’ve changed in the past and underestimate how much their tastes, preferences, and behaviors will continue to change in the future. Only as time passes will consumers begin to realize the scale of pandemic repercussions.

Rather than expect consumers to settle into a defined “post-pandemic normal,” CMOs should prepare for a constant evolution of consumer needs and expectations over the next 12 to 24 months by tracking three types of consumer change: 1) Ongoing: Changes in consumer attitudes and behaviors that influenced businesses before the pandemic have accelerated through the crisis; 2) Morphing: Changes in consumer attitudes and behaviors that were mounting before the pandemic are now shifting, given the crisis; and 3) Nascent: Certain attitudes and behaviors emerging from the pandemic are resetting consumers’ expectations of brands.

My latest report dives into each of these categories and triangulates quantitative data, qualitative insight, and years of consumer observation to identify the most important trajectories of consumer change that will shape the coming years. As always, I look forward to discussing your questions and ideas via Forrester inquiry.