How COVID-19 rewrites the cultural rules of connection

This crisis is changing what consumers want from brands and changing the social contract for how we interact with each other.

Hand draw social network on black board using chalk

If you talked to a millennial two months ago, they would have told you there is nothing more anxiety provoking than a real-time phone call. Yet in the solitude of quarantine, a craving for personal connection means people want to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s faces.

Quarantine and the COVID-19 crisis are completely rewriting our cultural rules of communication. But the ways we’re corresponding will shift how we connect well beyond the lockdown.

Here are some of the changes that are likely to be with us long after the pandemic is over:

1: Digital communities are more democratic.

Celebrities are livestreaming with anyone who asks to join in. Anonymous Zoom dance parties take place nightly. Ordered to stay home, it took only a few days for folks to start broadcasting themselves, mostly to chaotic ends.  While it might seem haphazard, each interaction is an expansion of community that chips away at our cultural fear of IRL intimacy and democratizes digital communities.

As white collar workers wonder not when they’re going to return to the office, but why they would ever return at all, big cities are staring at an exodus of knowledge workers. This migration gives brands a mandate to expand their offerings to diverse groups of consumers as they use digital tools to build new communities.

2: Forget aspiration; mitigate exasperation.

The everything-is-perfect image that is the hallmark of influencer marketing has never been less appropriate. In a global crisis, consumers are rejecting content that screams aspiration, instead seeking ways to mitigate our collective exhaustion and anxiety.

Whether through live baking tutorials to yoga flows in bedrooms via Zoom, we’re all now content creators and influencers. “Coming to you live” from the emotional messiness of quarantine is recalibrating our relationship with reality, causing us to embrace “doing the best we can” as the new form of “living our best life.”

3: Optimism means self-care.

Against a backdrop of endless doomsday news, people are clamoring for optimism. Sarcasm and troll-like quips, hallmarks of the internet, are being replaced by uplifting content. For a moment, “Duck Pool Party,” a stream of ducks playing in a pool, was the most viewed Reddit stream.

Wholesome content has become a balm for our anxiety, a form of self-care that provides a sense of calm that facemasks and baking cannot.

4: Fascination with facts.

Life in the time of the coronavirus is marked by an insatiable consumption of facts. Consumers, especially younger ones, have become amazingly good at distilling information from the inane.

Unlikely figures like Dr. Fauci and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have emerged as leading men of the pandemic thanks to their straightforward delivery of facts.

Now, to be worthy of consumers’ time, you need to give it to them straight. Frito Lay’s COVID-spot “It’s About People” won praise for saying what they were doing to help employees, rather than selling chips. When we emerge from this crisis, knowing that catastrophe can hit again at any moment, people will still want straightforward talk from brands. Brands will need to quickly adjust if they hope to survive and thrive in the ‘new normal.’

Megan Routh is a consulting strategist with Open Mind Strategy whose expertise lies in translating cultural insights and trends into actionable strategies for Fortune 100 companies.

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