The current pandemic is a difficult time for many industries, as they are severely impacted by the social distancing guidelines imposed by many cities and states. Nevertheless, history has shown that times of crisis can be an opportunity for innovation, such as the major developments in tech following 9/11.
Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic already is inspiring innovation as many companies adapt to find new ways to operate and serve consumers. Innovation can take many different forms; it can be as big as the development of new products and services, or as small as a pivot in marketing strategy. Sometimes innovations are permanent, such as when September 11th spurred the development of improved skyscraper design and automated translation software. But they can also be temporary adjustments meant to meet an urgent need during difficult times.
Here are a few notable ways that some industries and brands are innovating to meet new consumer needs and habits during the pandemic:
With bars and clubs shut down, so, too, is a huge channel of revenue for alcohol companies. But some brands, such as Budweiser, Remy Martin, Carlsberg and Pernot Ricard adopted a new sales strategy by partnering with China’s largest online retailer, JD.com, and Taihe Music Group to bring the clubbing experience directly to people’s homes. JD.com hosts a three-hour show every week during which participants can purchase imported alcohol brands directly from the livestream. Additionally, many alcohol brands and distilleries are shifting their operations to produce hand sanitizer in order to meet the sudden spike in demand.
Though consumer usage of online grocery shopping is relatively low, the category has surged from 3-4% of all grocery shopping prior to the pandemic, to 10-15% since the emergence of COVID-19, and it is expected that increased demand will continue. Many retailers are having trouble keeping up with demand. Some brands, such as Whole Foods, are converting a number of locations to ‘dark stores,’ where only employees can enter and are geared to complete orders for delivery or pick-up. Other companies have shifted or pivoted their business models. OurStreets, a Washington, DC-based app for pedestrians and cyclists to report bad behavior by drivers, recently pivoted to help consumers locate essential grocery items via crowdsourcing. Meal subscription company MealPal has also pivoted its business from providing its members easy pick-up meals at local restaurants during the workweek to offering groceries supplied by local restaurants.
Similar to other industries, the health and fitness industry has been forced to shift online with gyms and fitness studios closed to their members. While at-home fitness is certainly not a novelty, many companies are finding ways to meet the sudden spike in demand. Some fitness companies, including Nike and Peloton, are offering their subscribed apps for free to consumers. Offering free subscriptions attracts new customers, who potentially will be more open to pay for the brands’ services and offerings once the free trial is over. ClassPass, a company geared to connect fitness-goers with classes at local gyms and studios, is now offering livestream classes on their own platform. In addition, many independent fitness instructors finding themselves in need of work are bringing their offerings to social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram.
The closure of major entertainment destinations, like theme parks and movie theaters, have forced companies in the media industry to find new ways to offer their experiences and content at home. Disney+ released Frozen 2 earlier than planned to help parents with kids cooped up at home due to school closures. Amazon Prime is offering kids’ content to non-Prime members, and NBCUniversal is now offering its latest movies on-demand for affordable rates. ESPN decided to move up the release of the “Last Dance,” a documentary about Michael Jordan’s last championship season with the Chicago Bulls, to seize on a captive audience thirsty for any sports content in the absence of live sporting events.
No stranger to innovation, the tech industry has seized the opportunity to fill a wide range of needs because of the pandemic. Many of us in self-quarantine have resorted to using the online web-conferencing platform Zoom to meet with co-workers or keep in touch with loved ones. However, increased usage rapidly highlighted security concerns around the platform, which quickly prompted Zoom to improve the platform’s security and privacy capabilities. Amazon is offering its cashier-free tech to retailers so they can remain open under COVID-19 health guidelines and precautions. With many people seeking help to navigate work disruptions due to COVID-19, LinkedIn is offering free courses to help people with various professional needs, including job seeking tips, work-from-home advice, and ways to deal with stress and time management. And to assist closed schools in their transition to online learning, Adobe is offering students and educators in higher education and K-12 schools temporary access to their Creative Cloud apps.
Companies aren’t only innovating for their consumers, but for their employees as well. Google, for example, created a COVID-19 fund that allows temporary staff and vendors globally to take sick leave if they come down with the virus.
Many companies also are stepping up to innovate in the fight against COVID-19. For example, Inokyo, a start-up that builds and installs autonomous check-out for retail stores, has utilized its technology to build Act, a product that helps companies arrange contact-tracing technology in their workplaces and warehouses. Some brands are also using their large-scale manufacturing capabilities to meet the increasing demands of essential items in response to COVID-19, including face masks, hand sanitizer, and ventilators. And even my own parent company, LRW Group, is offering its market research expertise to identify representative samples in an effort to discover the true spread of the virus in Los Angeles.
There’s an old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and we’re seeing it bear out in real time during the pandemic.
Beyond meeting consumer needs, innovation is integral for the survival of most businesses during times of crisis. But first, brands need to understand how consumers have changed, and that all starts with reliable research. Strong business intelligence can open the door to answering critical questions: what do your customers need now and in the future as economies phase back to re-opening? And how can your business fill those needs?
Looking past the bottom-line, the COVID-19 crisis is highlighting how businesses have a responsibility to understand consumers as humans and that we are all in this together. As we cope with these hard times, it helps to focus on positive outcomes to such circumstances and on how everyone – especially businesses – can help lay a foundation for a better world once this is all over.