Learning from COVID: how to navigate an uncertain world
Much suffering and millions of deaths have been brought about by COVID-19. The pandemic is playing out in in real time on our screens and phones, so it’s unsurprising that the world fell into a synchronised anxiety attack during at the pandemic’s peak. Analysing the emotional stages that people experienced can provide investors with a blueprint of how to navigate periods of major uncertainty and to understand what “new normal” will emerge over the longer term.
Arguably the world has not seen a collective synchronised anxiety shock since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when people rushed to build fallout shelters in their gardens to protect their families. While this might have appeared sensible at the time, with hindsight their futile actions helped them to deal with anxiety. Many companies jumped on the bandwagon, from builders selling bunkers, to timber, concrete block and steel merchants offering materials to build shelters in their existing homes. Many people and investors assumed that with a continuous and growing nuclear threat, the demand for fallout shelters was the new normal.
So how do investors avoid investing in the equivalent of the fallout shelter manufacturers, distinguishing between transitory demand and trends that will form part of the new normal. Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, or traditional financial frameworks that rely on observing patterns can’t provide the answer. They take current behaviours like the amount of hand sanitiser consumption, and extrapolate it into perpetuity, concluding that a new trend’s arisen.
we need to evaluate the underlying emotions that drive people’s behaviour so that we can understand changes in their long-term habits.
As our world’s becoming more interconnected, polarised and uncertain, we need to evaluate the underlying emotions that drive people’s behaviour so that we can understand changes in their long-term habits.
Ethnographic research has for years been the essential means of garnering consumer insights to map changes and the reasoning behind them. As such, it’s now more important than ever.
Ethnographers speak to people, taking time to understand their dreams, values and anxieties, but they also take the clues from people’s environment, ideally by joining them physically in their homes, or if travel is restricted as during the pandemic, with help of digital diaries.
How else can we explain that one day consumers said they wouldn’t buy in supermarkets or go to a restaurant, and the next day they were queuing outside them?
We need to capture and understand consumers’ changing habits, their needs, motivations, and emotions, as well as observed behaviours. How else can we explain that one day consumers said they wouldn’t buy in supermarkets or go to a restaurant, and the next day they were queuing outside them?
Emotional states explain behaviour
Behaviour moves in cycles, but simply observing behaviour can’t make sense of it. But if we look at the emotional state of the consumer, a clear pattern emerges with three distinct emotional states.
First comes Anxiety, where people try to establish safety, such as stocking pasta or toilet paper, and looking for reassurance. In the pandemic, they sought familiarity, shopping from local stores, buying brands they knew. They created new hygiene rituals, from washing hands to disinfecting anything that came into their houses. They wanted figures of authority to tell them what to do and kept looking to social media as they found comfort in hearing from others who were in the same situation as them.
The next stage is Acceptance, such as when people accepted that the pandemic would be here for a while. Taking people out of their hectic daily routines give them time to reflect on their lives before COVID-19, and to consider what was most important to them. People often say that their kids are the most important aspects of their lives, but the average American, bogged down in long commutes, spends less than 30 minutes a day with their kids. The Acceptance phase was the time to re-evaluate what was important to them.
Adaptation is the final phase where consumers look forward, believing that their life will be better because of the lessons they’ve learned; an opportunity to change and to create new habits.
Emotions dictate behaviour
Under normal circumstances, values drive behaviour, and our emotions are an outcome of our behaviour. We feel happy when we can enjoy one of our values, and despair when we fail to protect it.
In an anxious world, our emotions dictate our behaviour, and our values don’t come into this equation. Any behaviour under anxiety is therefore likely transitional, and the new normal can only be understood once consumers have had a chance to revaluate their lives and moved to the adaptation phase.
2020 was an unusual year for many reasons. But we believe that we’ll face more mass or even global anxieties in the decade ahead. COVID-19 has shown us that the world is connected. More than ever we should try to understand consumers emotions, and even our own, and dig down to see how they align with our true values.
More than ever we should try to understand consumers emotions, and even our own, and dig down to see how they align with our true values.
Anxiety will increase as China threatens to overtake the US as an economic and military superpower, the pace of climate change accelerates, conflicts between nations, races and religions are increasingly common, jobs are replaced by AI and robots, and polarised opinions are amplified through social media. The list keeps growing.
Studying our lives and the lives of others during the pandemic has given us a blueprint for navigating such periods.
Tassos Stassopoulos outlined this in more detail in his discussion with Jonathan Shapiro at the Portfolio Construction Forum Strategies Conference in Sydney in October 2020. Watch the presentation here.
The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of Trinetra Investment Management LLP and are subject to revision over time. Trinetra is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom.