3 ways COVID-19 has changed the customer experience forever

When it comes to the customer experience and the desire of brands to strengthen their ties to consumers, the past year turned all the rules upside down. 

During the pandemic, even the best-prepared companies were caught off-guard in their ability to be agile and responsive. Issues of simple product fulfillment rose to crisis levels as manufacturing stalled and supplies dwindled. Even so, loyalty programs flourished (with one retailer enjoying a 40% lift in cart size among its program members). There also was a renaissance in creativity around brand messaging with the ascent of new digital and social media platforms. 

At the same time, historic social movements dominated the public’s attention and became a fundamental element of how brands speak to and connect with consumers. 

The result: a next-gen customer experience that seamlessly connects the physical and digital worlds across the customer journey. This, in turn, bolsters brands’ ability to maximize revenue while building lifelong relationships with consumers by communicating what they really care about and in a voice that resonates. 

Here are three key takeaways illustrating how brands successfully navigated the singular challenges of the pandemic and how marketers can apply those strategies to future campaigns.

Customer connections transformed. 

The pandemic brought about unprecedented challenges for brands and also ushered in once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to innovate through customer connections. Consider a particular seed manufacturer that had always counted on face-to-face interactions but that, because of COVID-19 restrictions, had no choice but to engage with its customers via digital platforms and vice versa. 

Marketers who for so long have fixated on Gen Z and digital natives found they had to speak to a much broader base of customers who had become, out of necessity, more technologically savvy. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we now have more than a year of this customer-experience laboratory under our belts. 

But the pandemic has not just been a lab. It’s been a wake-up call. 

For example, at the onset of the global health crisis, one large retailer took the position that it would not do commerce via mobile, opting to employ the medium for engagement only. Then the whole world shut down, everybody shifted to digital transactions, and the retailer found itself without a mechanism for carrying through the customer relationship to the point of purchase. Talk about a missed opportunity. 

Pre-pandemic, around 30% of people shopped online for groceries (and even at that level, there were cracks starting in the supply chain: grocery stores that failed to track changing customer purchase patterns led to shortages or even mass food spoilage). During the pandemic, 80% shopped online. As the pandemic subsides, we anticipate the numbers will settle out a “new normal” above what we saw pre-pandemic. 

What was a temporary stress on the customer experience is now truly the new normal. This 50/50 split also highlights the need for companies to be more diligently focused on the intersection between “offline/in-store” experiences and digital ones. 

Test-then test some more. 

One advantage of the shifting rules of commerce has been that brands can be freer about experimentation, considering many possible customer experiences and then using data and analytics to inform their decisions. Testing approaches and using data science to help ensure a clear understanding of customers and what they truly care about is the very foundation of innovation and authentic customer experiences. 

The importance of testing cannot be overemphasized. Yes, innovation is about being bold and taking risks, but it’s also about being accountable and measurable. Testing and measurement offer a framework for what success looks like and, as such, are critical components, whether in developing products and services, designing a marketing strategy or perfecting the customer experience. 

The truth is, some brands throw millions of dollars at this thing called “innovation” but have no real measurement strategy for understanding the overall efficacy of their ideas. Leading companies often tackle this challenge by measuring or implementing NPI, a new product introduction. 

Having a solid measurement framework and not being afraid to experiment constantly with innovations are essential elements of success as we emerge from the pandemic and reimagine the everyday way of doing business. 

Chatter is not noise. It’s your road map. 

Another key tool is social listening before, during and after a campaign. This has become an indispensable tool to inform everything from overall brand strategy to the social movements that resonate with customers. 

Take the social issues that have come to define our times. They are at the forefront of everything, whether in the nuclear household or a multinational corporation. Our research has found that consumers will spend more money with a brand that has social good as part of its charter than they will with brands that stay on the social sidelines. 

Being socially conscious is not just altruistic for brands today; it is key to business success, with many of today’s leading marketers having entire departments focused on brand purpose. 

There are those brands that may think aligning with cultural movements is risky. As the data bears out, however, the reality is that it’s a cornerstone of building consumer affinity and enhancing the customer experience. 

Social listening enables marketers to get down to the granular level of what customers care about, leverage innovations and take brands where they need to go. That’s true whether in creating a singular marketing campaign, redesigning the in-store shopping experience or building partnerships with other companies that have a stake in the customer relationship. 

On that point, there is another enormous opportunity to maximize the customer experience by thinking beyond just your own brand. Every company must ask itself how to build relationships with complementary partners—and sharing valuable customer data among those players—can enhance its consumer relationships. 

For example, if you’re a retailer, you may want to take a sharper look at your relationships with wholesalers—which are equally as responsible for the customer experience, after all—to help ensure they are providing as high a level of customer value as you are. 

During the transition, there’s been a change in focus from the front office to the back office. The companies that performed best are the ones that understood that shift. Brands have had to get smarter about areas like data and analytics that traditionally fell to agency partners and choose the right partners with the experience and expertise to bridge your business’ front- and back-office functions. 

From taking a stand on social movements to developing the products and services consumers desire and delivering the highest-quality customer experiences, brand marketers must work continuously to understand their customers and what they are demanding after a very trying year. Considering the velocity with which technology, brand-consumer interactions and social changes are happening, they surely cannot afford to rest. 

Views expressed in this presentation are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

This article was written by Josiah Johnson from Ad Age and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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3 ways COVID-19 has changed the customer experience forever



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