The Evolution of Research

Remember when the headlines were things such as “Millennials Ruin Toast” or “Millennials Ruin Hand Soap” and those types of things were the biggest consumer behavior concerns? Now, we get things such as “The 9-5 Workday Is Dead” and “Screen Time Leading to Mental Health Risks due to Remote Work.” While both types of headlines indicate shifts in consumer behavior, the latter are much more impactful than brands reimagining hand soap scents or the advent of avocado toast.

And, with the change in consumer priorities, comes changes in data collection and research methods.

The reality is that brands are now having to pivot on every front to stay afloat as behavior changes. The same can be said for those of us on the other side of the equation, who are watching consumer behavior evolve. We, too, have had to change and adapt to the pandemic, but in very different ways.

While the pandemic has changed how consumers behave—or, perhaps, because of that, it has changed how we study behavior itself. The last time we saw such a significant shift was the emergence of social media and the rise of big data. (A quick backstory—social media changed the game for qualitative research, as we now had the ability to look in real time at how consumers felt about products, goods, and services. This gave us a new way to approach consumer insights, as well as a new way to quantify qualitative information.)

Now, with the pandemic, we’ve had to adapt again. The face that core consumer behaviors have changed means the way we’ve explored qualitative research has also evolved. Case in point:

  • Families who, six months ago, may have had a steady income and careers may now find themselves in completely different scenarios.
  • Generation Z’s path forward has completely changed—how we engage with each other as a culture has significantly changed.
  • Business and education reliance on technology has increased, leading to extreme changes in workplace interaction.

All of this has led to us having to rethink priorities in qualitative research, as well as reevaluate the timestamp on “current” data.

Some of us recall the days when companies had a three-year pipeline for new product development or innovation. Now, even six-month-old data may be irrelevant, due to consumer displacement and their dynamics changing. Brands are having trouble grabbing the attention of consumers in their once active locales, changing the way we use location data, as well leading us to need new engagement strategies.

Messaging and communication are having to walk a thin line between proving the brand’s worth to the consumer and coming across as trying too hard or being relentlessly out of touch. The industry has been affected in ways not even tied directly to the pandemic itself, but that still demonstrate how the pandemic has influenced the consumer.

It has been a tumultuous and yet fascinating time, watching the research world adapt and evolve to scenarios beyond their control, as well as figure out how to newly engage with a consumer who is facing the exact same thing. With everyone starting at square one in tackling the pandemic nearly a year ago, we’ve learned a lot—from how we need to approach behavior moving forward, to realigning consumer needs. Because if we don’t, we face a familiar scenario many consumer-facing categories face now: adapt or die.