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How Did the Covid-19 Pandemic Influence Behaviour Change?
London, UK
Experts from VMLY&R Commerce, McCann Worldgroup, VMLY&R, M&C Saatchi and Armadillo on behaviour changes which occurred as a result of the pandemic, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani

With the world grounding to a halt in March 2020, working, socialising and living changed. Not only this, but general attitudes, priorities and goals did too, shifting the global population’s behaviour and altering the way in which we spend both our time and money. For experts in the field of behavioural change, this period not only offered an insight into human behaviour and a way to test the relevance of theories, but it also created the question: ‘How did the covid-19 pandemic influence behaviour change?’

Posing this question to several experts from VMLY&R Commerce, McCann Worldgroup, VMLY&R, M&C Saatchi and Armadillo, LBB’s Nisna Mahtani heard about how attitudes have changed and how the industry has and will continue to respond to the shift.

Roy Armale, global chief innovation officer 

VMLY&R Commerce

Something is surprising to people who don't understand behaviour but unsurprising to probably everyone else, which is that we're productive when left to our own devices. We’re starting to learn some very sharp lessons in motivation, which have already been outlined by people like Daniel H. Pink in ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’. He talked about purpose, autonomy and mastery as the three main drivers of motivation beyond money, and during the pandemic, the level of autonomy went up instantly. The reaction to that level of autonomy was self-guided requirements of success, rather than boxed requirements of success and it created higher ownership of the output.

While that change in macro context resulted in a motivational effect, there are micro contexts that have affected behaviour as well. I now start my day after having a nice coffee at home with my wife, I don't start my day after having been stuck in traffic for half an hour and gotten annoyed at a bunch of people. There is the time-saving aspect, already a win, but there is also a mindset impact where you walk into your first occasion of work off the back of a positive experience. You used to have to compensate for a negative experience by getting to work and calming down after traffic or a rushed commute and then starting your positive work experience from there. You don't need to do that anymore.

These are just two examples of contextual changes that lead to improved mindsets and behaviours. Does it mean that it’s all roses and life is a lot better? I wouldn’t say that. Each one of us has dealt with a different change and a different impact on how we live. The important lesson is understanding that a lot of assumptions about our behaviours were incorrect and that companies need to adapt to this changing reality and how we behave within it. With that effort comes a means of planning the future of work, life, and brands.

Annie Hou, global head of AI & behavioural sciences and Elly Dembo, VP & director of quantitative research

McCann Worldgroup

McCann Worldgroup’s covid-19 research found that half of the population believes the world will be ‘forever changed by the pandemic’ but how the world will be changed differs across countries. 

In Japan, for example, where there has long been a rigid work culture, 47% of people believe that a lasting positive change of this crisis will be flexible working. By contrast, over half of Germans believe the lasting change will be more time to appreciate the little things.

However, as with all survey-based data, we shouldn’t take stated behavioural change at face value. When we look at an individual level, our research indicates that what people say they’re doing (‘social script’) is not always matched with action (dictated by their ‘inner voice’). At the peak of infections in 2020, 73% of people said that they were following the rules to protect others, but only 50% actually did so. 

In many ways, this isn’t new – consider all the times you planned to go for a run, but instead binged on Netflix. According to the COM-B model of behaviour, three factors are needed for action to occur: Capability (can I do it?), opportunity (Is there a chance to do it?), and motivation (do I want to do it?). In the case of covid-19, while the motivation to follow the rules was high, in many cases, opportunity (e.g. the need to make money, or fear of losing a job) outweighed personal motivation.

Brands are in a unique position to bridge this say-do gap, but only if they understand the specifics of what drives people at a cultural and individual level. This remains true for any crisis which requires widespread behaviour change be that climate change, the war in Ukraine, or another pandemic.

Anna Vogt, chief strategy officer

VMLY&R London

When it comes to behaviour change, a tool that has always stuck in my head is Gleicher’s formula for change, or, to be more precise: C = D x V x F > R. Change (C) is only possible when you are already dissatisfied (D) with the situation you’re in, have a clear vision (V) of what life could be like if you made a change and you are offered a practical first step (F) towards a different future. If you have all of these three ingredients, then together they have the momentum to overcome any resistance (R) to change. The argument went that unless you have all three ingredients, behaviour change is never truly possible.

What’s interesting about the pandemic is that we radically adopted new behaviours that were neither fuelled by the dissatisfaction with our prior lives, nor did we necessarily know what the future had in store for us. Granted, Gleicher didn’t create this formula with a global pandemic in mind, but it does beg the question of whether the pandemic has highlighted additional ingredients we need to consider when trying to predict or instigate behaviour change. For instance, peer pressure. How quickly have we stopped gelling our hands after every interaction? Or wearing masks on public transport, despite the recommendation to continue doing so? It’s easy to stop when nobody around you is doing it. And it’s hard to start when you’re the only one.

Sophie Lean, head of strategy

M&C Saatchi London

When you think about behaviour change over the pandemic, it’s easy to think about the big ‘unprecedented’ changes. Like rail passenger numbers falling to their lowest level since the time of steam trains in 1872.

The thing about these dramatic changes is they are largely driven by external factors. The behavioural theory follows that when those external factors are removed, we return to our previous behaviours, because inherently we haven’t changed.

We’ve begun to see this with the return to cinemas, to in-store supermarkets. A number of these changes are now back to pre-pandemic trends. But the big changes aren’t the big thing. It’s the small changes, to us as people, that are the meaningful changes.

Based on classical economic theories, personality and preferences are generally stable. This stands to reason, as we choose our life partners based on them having values and traits we think we can live with long-term.

But what we’re seeing off the back of the pandemic are small changes to who people are. We are becoming a little bit more risk-loving, and our bias for short term gratification is becoming slightly more exaggerated.

These small changes will massively impact behaviour around ‘good’ choices like gambling responsibly and proactively managing our health. A real challenge when 42% of people who needed a GP appointment in 2021 already avoided making one. So, whilst research for our client Kenwood shows 44% of people globally plan to continue to cook more at home, the increased draw of unhealthy and convenient food decisions will make positive intentions like this less likely.

How reversible these attitudes are will likely be impacted by going straight into a cost-of- living crisis. Changing behaviour in the meantime will be more difficult, not because everything has changed dramatically, but because we have changed a little.

Joanna Penn, managing director 


Our relationship with brands was turned on its head during the pandemic. The traditional roles of media channels were disrupted - for example, with people not leaving their homes, cinema and outdoor were not an option. Leveraging first-party data became the priority, immediately keeping customers engaged and entertained when they could not go on a Cunard cruise, buy a McDonald’s burger or go to Disney World. Digital became the go-to channel for many - people now spend over 3.5 hours per day on their mobile devices according to eMarketer. 

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) – especially emails and push messages – had a pivotal role to play in behaviour change. With new contactless app buying behaviours emerging and an expanding first-party data set developing for many brands, CRM quickly came into play. Ensuring customers changed behaviour using an app or product over a competitor's app or product was key. Capitalising on this, the ‘Feel Good Customer Journeys’ campaign from McDonald's got the customer closer to what they love via their inbox and on their lock screen. The campaign made it so simple, seamless and personalised that the next best action (such as buying a McDelivery or using Click & Serve to get their McDonald’s favourites without even having to leave a car) was a no-brainer. It nudged customers effortlessly along the journey, using hyper-intelligent automation.

[Photo by Nothing Ahead from Pexels]
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