Adapting to the unexpected
We had set out to understand the impact of COVID at a human level. After going through many reports that tried to understand the impact of COVID in terms of numbers – disease and economy related – we still missed the micro picture. How did individuals cope with COVID? How did they adapt to it?
To understand this, we spoke to people from seven different segments – a small farmer, a migrant worker, an unorganized sector worker, a small trader, a small business owner, a young urban individual, and urban families. We tracked their dreams and fears and behavior across six distinct phases of the pandemic – December 2019; March 24th to June 7th, 2020; June 8th to August 31st, 2020; September 1st to December 31st, 2020; January 1st to March 31st, 2021; and April 1st to June 30th, 2021
These stories helped us understand that the strategies deployed by consumers to adapt to the unexpected were grounded in seven key themes
- Health & hygiene
- Reverse migration
Let us now look at how each of these helped consumers cope with the disruption brought about by COVID.
COVID accelerated the adoption of technology, and it instilled faith in technology.
– Anand, the garment trader, now knows that he does not have to travel to Mumbai or Delhi, or Gujarat to meet up with his suppliers and touch and feel the garments before placing orders. He now knows that all of this can happen on WhatsApp.
– Kishore, the small farmer, believes that technology can help him reach his farm produce directly to consumers. He can now wrestle control back from middlemen and earn a lot more.
– Surya, the migrant worker, now connects with his wife and son regularly through video calls. These calls helped him pull through the second wave.
Adoption of and trust in technology is a trend that is here to stay. Marketers need to see technology for what it is. A potent platform to build brands and businesses. No matter what you are selling, no matter who you are talking to.
Health & hygiene
Hand sanitizers have become ubiquitous, so have supplements that boost immunity. Even the most economically challenged consumers, at a time when their incomes had been depleted even further, started consuming Ayurvedic supplements and buying hand sanitizers. Deeper still, we heard interesting stories about a truer understanding of Ayurveda and the beginnings of a social and community aspect to hygiene.
– Ayurveda: The pandemic helped Indians, rediscover Ayurveda. It helped them understand Ayurveda as it is – a form of preparation, quite different from a cure – a way of living, a lifestyle, something that helps your body prepare and fight off things that can harm it.
– Social and community aspects of hygiene: The pandemic widened our understanding of hygiene. It is not restricted only to our bodies or homes now, it involves our neighborhood as well. We are now more actively involved in ensuring that our neighborhood is as clean as our homes.
A deeper and truer understanding of Ayurveda opens up newer opportunities for Ayurvedic brands. This understanding means that Ayurvedic brands do not have to ape mainstream brands in how they position themselves or engage with consumers. They can stay true to Ayurveda; they can look at segments beyond what Ayurvedic brands have operated in so far. The social and community aspects of hygiene give brands interesting opportunities to create strong social movements.
The pandemic underlined the importance of learning in two distinct ways
1. As a means of breaking free of the no education – no income trap
2. As a means of creating the future that you want for yourself
– Murali, the flower seller realized that the real reason behind all his troubles was that neither he nor his son had completed their education. He now plans to admit his grandson to an English medium private school. He does not want yet another generation to get caught in the no-education-no-income trap. He does not know how he will find the money for this. He just knows that this is something that he has to do.
– Ashok, the small farmer felt that middlemen were taking advantage of the pandemic by keeping the procurement prices of cash crops low. He wanted to get around them. This made him research online to figure out how he can reach his produce directly to consumers. He learned about D2C, and he learned about the different online platforms that he can use to accomplish this.
– Srini, the techie used the pandemic to complete his master’s in clinical psychology, he had discontinued this about ten years back to take up a job. He then enrolled in two more courses, one on counseling and another on cognitive behavioral therapy. Srini sees himself as a full-time counselor in ten years.
Young people no longer see their education as a finished product. They are invested in creating the future that they want for themselves. They are open to courses and experiences that will give them the skills required to create that future. The audience for ed-tech and upskill brands is a lot wider than what is currently estimated. Placements in part-time or short-term jobs that will give people the experience that they are looking for to master certain skills is again a big opportunity.
The pandemic had a varied effect on the finances of different sets of Indians. Murali, the flower seller, Surya, the migrant worker, and Natarajan, the trucker had to go through long periods of no earnings. Ashok, the farmer saw the revenues from his farm go down by about 30%. For Lalitha, the housewife, and Srini, the techie, their savings went up as they just could not spend on a lot of things like vacations and eating out.
Apart from this the pandemic created two new financial needs
1. The need for cash in hand: The chaos created by the lack of oxygen and ICU beds made a lot of people realize the importance of having cash in hand. You cannot buy an oxygen cylinder by making an online payment or by using a payment app. Moreover, you cannot use a payment app to bribe somebody for an ICU bed. FDs were liquified. SIPs were discontinued.
2. Sudden need for small sums of money: Murali’s earnings are limited by the fact that he and his son are both doing the same thing – selling flowers. If his son were to do something else, like take up a job at a courier company or become a delivery executive, a lot of their problems would be solved. All he needs is about thirty thousand rupees to buy a used motorcycle. But he has no savings, no collateral for a loan.
Flexible fixed deposits or SIPs will be in demand. Two-wheeler brands can start their own line of used motorcycles, much like what most car brands have currently. Small finance banks can expand their business significantly by reaching out and connecting with people at the bottom of the pyramid more effectively.
This pandemic has created entrepreneurs. Some choose to be entrepreneurs while a lot of them were pushed into it.
– Lalitha, the housewife had always wanted to put her nursing degree and diploma in pharmacy to use. She had dreamt about opening a medical store sometime in the future. The pandemic created an opportunity for her to work part-time in a medical store. She worked there for six months. And these six months taught her the ins and outs of running a medical store. The dream that she had about opening a medical store looks more plausible now.
– The transport company where Natarajan used to work is shutting down. He was given the choice of buying the truck that he had driven for the last six years, he turned down the offer as he believes that the opportunities to earn a living with a truck is limited these days. He is instead investing in a Tata Ace. With a small vehicle, he can do multiple trips a day, all within the city. He believes that his earnings will be a lot more stable with a Tata Ace.
This new breed of entrepreneurs can create unique opportunities for banks, financial institutions, and online educators. They can offer content to consumers in their language, content that helps them run their businesses efficiently.
The thought of shifting from a big city to a small town was in every instance triggered by one new experience – that of sharing a small apartment for months on end with everyone else in the family. Apartments that were adequate until now suddenly seemed very cramped. This lack of space combined with infection rates in high-rise apartments and bigger cities in particular, pushed some people to opt for a quieter life in a smaller town.
– Lalitha was in Erode when the lockdown was announced. Three months of living in a big house, in a village with wide open spaces contrasted starkly when she came back to Bangalore. If her husband could work from home, then why stay in Bangalore? Why not in her hometown of Madurai? There are good schools there and the quality of life would be a lot better. She has a support system there. She would be able to open her medical store a lot faster in Madurai.
– Surya had joined his Kishen his brother in Thane to earn more and to earn faster. He was happy until the lockdown. But he could earn nothing during the first and second lockdowns. Shyam, his brother in Varanasi was not affected by the lockdown. There was no dip in his earnings. Surya could endure the chaos of Thane till he was earning well. Now, that he was not, living in Thane did not make sense. He plans to get back to his village as soon as he can.
There are big learnings here on how developers should look at residential complexes and apartments. How can a 900 sq. foot. apartment be made in such a way that it does not appear cramped. With WFH becoming an enduring reality for some, which are the new suburbs that can be developed? What learnings can be drawn from homes that were designed at a time when everyone in the family was expected to occupy it most of the time? Homes from a hundred or more years back
WFH seemed like a great idea in March 2020. Now, it appears less so. Work was always contained, ten hours a day, five days a week. As the pandemic progressed hours of work expanded. The clear boundaries that had existed between work and personal time do not exist anymore. Routine things took a lot more time in getting done. Mental health suffered. There were other fallouts of WFH. Comfort scored over style when it came to fashion. Wardrobes came to be filled with track pants. Even small retailers in the remote villages of Tamil Nadu reported that sales of T-shirts, track pants and nighties had gone up significantly.
WFH policies will have a clear bearing on the corporate brand and attractiveness of a company as a prospective employer. A clear WFH policy that prioritizes work-life balance will make you more attractive as a potential employer.
Fashion is another industry that has been completely transformed. The top-down model of working and the dictating of what is fashionable and what is not, may not work anymore. Fashion needs a reorientation in how it approaches and engages with consumers.