Learning from the pandemic, how digital and physical will direct the future

Drive and Dine drive-in cinema pop-up Syon Park

There is little doubt that the current coronavirus pandemic has altered consumer behaviour. It’s evident from our half-empty high streets and the sheer number of Amazon delivery vans on roads. Yet, much of what we’re witnessing with consumer behaviour was already in the making. The Covid-19 crisis has simply fast-tracked progress. Digital technology, data, machine science will continue to deeply shape our daily lives and drive our future. Simultaneously, elements of what we know and love about the tangible world will stay with us. The question is how do we balance the two, and what should brands learn from this?

The pandemic and the lockdown that followed forced many of us to experience what work and life, even relationships, would look and feel like in a futuristic virtual world. Within weeks our homes morphed into offices as we searched for a suitable corner of the house or garden that would act as the perfect backdrop on work Zoom meetings and Houseparty weekends. And quickly we realised the benefits and shortcomings that come with relying entirely on digital technology.

Photography is by Peter Belanger Photography, courtesy of FORME Life and fuseproject.

Once the initial excitement of this new quasi sci-fi life wore off, once we began experiencing Zoom fatigue, many of us began craving physical contact. For urbanites working from home or on furlough, our immediate neighbourhoods – the ‘15-minute city’ – took on a whole new meaning. Parks became free public gyms as families jogged together, and couples used trees as props for their daily exercise. As city air cleared of daily pollution, Instagram flooded with the wows and wonders of park life and nature.

Soon local businesses found inventive ways to trade. A west London pub renowned for its food became a deli – news of which made it to the BBC with other similar establishments joining in as a way to survive – possibly more morally than financially. Amazon deliveries continued, as did Ocado, Tesco and the rest, but now for those special items or a moment of conversation, many of us took to these new local pop-ups. And thus shopping, consumption, became exciting again. In that original pub-turned-deli, customers learnt of the suppliers, many exchanged recipes, the chef revealed his secret to a perfect sourdough while donating live yeast to home bakers. This was the new face of the old-fashioned marketplace.

Cowshed beauty and wellness products by Spinach Branding

So what will be the new post-Covid reality? History has shown that the new doesn’t always erase what came before. Pen and paper have remained in use long after the invention of the typewriter. And even with the computer and sophisticated software allowing for far-reaching creative freedom, many designers admit to also using the humble pencil on paper for inspiration. Equally, who doesn’t delight in receiving a greeting card in the post? The soulless e-card never had a chance. The vinyl lives alongside Spotify, and the cassette tape is finding a new lease of life among younger generations. More telling is the cinema experience, which continues to flourish decades after the television became a common household item. Social restrictions under the pandemic have even spearheaded a renaissance for the ultimate romantic movie experience with drive-in theatres popping up all over the world – made all the better by the intervention of technology.

We suspect once the threat of the virus is over, the office and studio space will return but evolve to be more flexible and adapt to suit new working patterns that include remote digital presence. Equally, in the consumer and retail industries, shopping will increasingly be a cooperative dialogue between the digital and physical space with bricks-and-mortar offering the visceral experience, and digital the convenience factor. What is certain is that technology will play a huge part in forming relationships between consumer and commerce, and data is going to be ever-more instrumental to deliver hyper-personal, predictive and intimately tailored experiences for the customer in both the physical and digital space.

Zoom Branding Agency

In the money world, banks are already being challenged by the likes of Amazon and Apple who offer smart banking and a more personal customer-centric approach. Unlike traditional banks, during the early days of the pandemic, FinTech business models like Monzo’s operations transitioned smoothly from office to home-based. Likewise, the ever-growing health and fitness industry quickly bounced into action during the lockdown. Wellness brands like Cowshed offered free on-line self-grooming sessions, a surge of advanced home fitness products arrived on the market, while most gyms and studios quickly set up live Zoom classes – simultaneously expanding their consumer reach. Most likely, post-pandemic the industry will continue to operate in the physical and digital world.

The art world too has had to challenge the formal gallery space to be interactive and highly experiential. With the temporary closure of galleries and cultural spaces, even the most traditional establishments have had to be inventive by adapting a temporary digital model with some unexpected collaborative efforts to assist smaller galleries without the necessary resources. Showing art digitally has been tricky though since virtual viewings work only on a certain level, with one high-profile art dealer noting that sales on the higher scales happen face-to-face and through relationships which have taken years to cultivate.

It is unlikely that learnings from the pandemic period will altogether be lost once the storm passes. The virtual world is here to stay, and we seem reluctant to leave all elements of the physical sphere. In reality, what we know and love about the tangible world will possibly continue to stay with us, but continue to evolve to complement and enhance technology.

Images: ‘Drive and Dine Theatre’, FORME Life by Yves Bahar © Peter Belanger for Fuseproject, Cowshed by Soho House, Zoom meetings, ‘Drive and Dine Theatre’ © Spinach.

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

Drive and Dine drive-in cinema pop-up Syon Park
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