By Gretchen Ramsey, SVP/Chief Strategy Officer at Harte Hanks
Will Your Brand Soar or Stumble in the Epiphany Economy?
If last year taught us anything, it’s that we live in a fragile world that can be upended by forces beyond our control. The realization we are more fragile than we thought sparked a continuous discovery of what really matters in our lives. These forces created a new Epiphany Economy driven by consumer revelation and new behavior rather than the rules of the financial market.
How many of us imagined, little over a year ago, we would be spending our working days logged into our home computers, interacting with our colleagues and friends over digital video platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams? How many of us understood how difficult it would be to juggle the demands of raising and educating our children as they navigate the obstacles of remote learning while missing out on important milestones like graduation ceremonies or the prom?
This fragility has been compounded further by divisiveness in our society that has frayed the institutions we rely on for stability, from our government to our workforces to our educational and health systems. We are reevaluating all structures in real time—relationships, community, work, and yes, brands.
As professional marketers, our company has spent decades helping brands navigate seismic changes. Whether it was helping them build their presence in a digital universe moving at warp speed, reacting to social injustice or finding a “purpose” for their brands with consumers seemingly overwhelmed by choices, we’ve never experienced anything like the impact the past year has had on how brands and companies are perceived and received in the marketplace.
Why has this timeframe been so unprecedented for brands? Haven’t they survived difficult times before and emerged with a stronger connection to their audiences?
The answer is more complex than most marketers and brands realize. Unlike previous periods of turmoil and disruption, we’ve never had as much time, as a society, to recognize our fragility and understand the need to change. 76% of consumers say they will make a permanent change in the way they live because of what is happening now.
Across 23 categories, measured in the most recent Harte Hanks Behavioral Index™ (HHBI), we found all but three categories of people hated having to adapt to the constraints forced upon them. This discontent is inciting people to think and act in new ways on a massive scale.
Coping with this great change sparks personal epiphanies, leading to rethinking and reimagining our behavior. “I have to take better care of myself. There are better ways of working. We need each other. What I choose to buy matters.” The self-awareness we’ve experienced as a society about our fragility has clearly affected the expectations customers have for brands. HHBI data shows that half of all people approach even everyday actions with greater mindfulness than before.
Customers no longer expect brands to simply deliver on their brand promises, they want brands (as well as the companies behind those brands) to prove they understand and empathize with consumers about the impact the past year has had on their lives.
Most importantly, customers want brands to quickly adapt and adopt new and meaningful ways of interacting with them. The brands that are committed to repairing the fragility consumers have witnessed and continue to experience are the ones that will achieve the greatest success moving forward.
It shouldn’t be surprising that certain brands recognized early on that we are living in a new Epiphany Economy and it’s not enough to simply provide a product or service. Brands must also show empathy and deliver meaningful action to meet consumer and cultural needs.
At companies like General Motors, the executive leadership has embraced this change and dedicated themselves and their resources to this new customer expectation.
Whether it’s transforming facilities into production lines of PPE for healthcare workers and first responders or ramping up production of their electric vehicles, General Motors is sending a clear message to its customers and employees—that it understands our world is a fragile place and it wants to make products that will help protect people, both now and in the future.
It isn’t just large brands that have embraced the Epiphany Economy. Many smaller brands have also recognized that they have a larger role to play in helping consumers with their overall health and wellness. Digital brands like Headspace and Calm, offered their customers free access to their platform when they recognized the difficulty that so many individuals were experiencing in a world of isolation and sheltering in place.
How did consumers respond? According to Sensor Tower, over an eleven-month period in 2020 Calm brought in $99 million in revenue on little over 28 million installs. During the same timeframe, Headspace generated an estimated $64 million on nearly 11 million installs.
Teledoc, which delivers whole-person virtual care to its customers, is another company that understood how its product could serve a critical need, both now and in the future. By quickly adapting to the customer’s inability to visit their health provider, and by expanding their services on an easy-to-navigate platform, the company has grown from 37 million users in 2019 to over 51 million users in 2020.
Why are some companies stumbling when they should be soaring?
Surprisingly, even brands built for times when consumers face isolation and are searching for mental and physical wellness have stumbled. Peloton for example, has nearly doubled the number of members who own its equipment—but according to the Better Business Bureau, Peloton has a 1.4 out of 5 rating with consumers.
They underestimated the importance of being able to deliver the product. Supply chain problems, combined with over-demand, created unhappy customers who couldn’t accept that a premium-priced product couldn’t provide premium service, even during a difficult time.
Similarly, many companies, including those in the hotel and travel industry, have spent too long on the sidelines waiting for things to improve instead of understanding that the Epiphany Economy has permanently changed customer behavior and attitude.
While companies such as United and Southwest Airlines changed everything from their cancellation policies to creating socially distant safe seating on their planes, other companies, including many of the major hotel chains, continue to be unsure of what they need to move forward with a better customer experience.
In fact, according to the findings of the most recent Harte Hanks Behavioral Index™, which has been tracking consumer behavior since the early stages of the pandemic, Airbnb has continually been outperforming traditional hotel companies in areas such as Innovation, Creativity or Relevance, all core attributes of a successful brand in the Epiphany Economy.
Is it too late for brands that may have missed the early opportunities of the Epiphany Economy?
While many brands have stumbled, they, along with those that have been waiting on the sidelines, need to understand that this customer change in attitude and behavior isn’t going away anytime soon. The ways we connect and socialize with friends and family, where we live and work, even how we shop for groceries are likely to endure permanent shifts. Consumers will expect every brand to have a similar pause, a similar epiphany.
Even after the pandemic fully subsides—a time that everyone is anxiously awaiting—brands and the companies behind those brands must take a hard look at themselves and their relationship with their customers.
They must ask themselves if they are addressing the fragile state of so many parts of our society. Are they doing anything to help repair that fragility and make customers feel more confident about their choices? Is their brand connecting with customers in innovative ways reflective of consumer desire for brands to take action in response to their unique needs and challenges?
Brands and the companies behind those brands must ask themselves: Are we ready to soar in the Epiphany Economy or will we stumble and potentially fail ourselves, our customers, and the world at large?
Harte Hanks is a global omnichannel customer experience company that partners with clients to seamlessly manage experiences throughout the entire customer lifecycle. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, Harte Hanks has more than 2,000 employees in offices across the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific. For more information, visit hartehanks.com.