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Near Distancing

Getting closer to your customers from afar

The value of every brand and business can be measured in how helpful it is to its customers, in short, its customer relevance. In times of crisis this relevance is ever more critical, and it is also now that true colours come to shine. How robust are your customer relationships, and is customer centricity really at the heart of your business? The Corona crisis is exposing these realities mercilessly. We see businesses tackling it in a range of ways. Some are adapting very creatively, developing new initiatives, offerings and finding new means of supporting their customers in ways that retain their value and relevance. Meanwhile an alarming number of businesses are using the current situation as an excuse for sloppy operations.

In his article, How to avoid f***ing up your brand during these Corona Times, Martin Lindstrom relates an encounter with customer service of the latter variety. His attempt to cancel a flight with Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, is met with the cool “We are busy”, from an overstretched customer services operator. During Corona customers have been unable to rebook or cancel flights with Qantas. Lindstrom continues with another offender, Katar’s national airline, Qatar, which has been charging customers 50 dollars in advance for every call they take, regardless of subject matter. Other service providers have pulled the plug entirely in an attempt to shield themselves from ever increasing customer inquiries.

But aren’t we all stressed and challenged during Corona? Isn’t it excusable to slip up? Yes and no. We’re all under strain, but how you choose to respond still defines your image, and will set the tone for your future. At STURMundDRANG we’ve been thinking about consumer behavior change during the Corona crisis in terms of three phases: the crisis of trust (Recession phase), the drive for alternatives (Rebound phase), and impetus for renewal (Re-imagine phase). When devising Recession-response strategies brands should bear in mind the Rebound and Recession phases ahead, and ask themselves, how can my actions now influence what role I come to play in the next phase?

So what is a positive example of this kind of strategy?

Patagonia is a great case that demonstrates how brands can use this crisis to prove their unwavering consistency and commitment to their values. Despite having to close all their retail stores, the outdoor clothing brand has shown its dedication to employees by continuing to pay all their employees’ salaries. „The scale of impact is still unknown, and we want to do our part to protect our community especially while testing availability is unknown”, writes Rose Marcario, CEO and president of Patagonia, in a letter that was published on the company website on March 13th. “It is everyone’s responsibility to stop the spread of this virus.” She also takes it as an opportunity to show optimism: “Over the years, as our Patagonia community has been faced with challenges, I have always been inspired by how we emerge stronger and with an even deeper sense of purpose. We will persevere through this challenge, too.”

Excuses? Quite the opposite. Patagonia is strengthening bonds within its own community, and thereby demonstrating how even during Covid-19 strong leadership can be demonstrated and underpinned by an integrity that puts ethics before profit. We can be sure that this decision will serve the brand well in the long term. This kind of relationship management is of key importance for businesses, because overwhelmed, stressed and isolated consumers have an especially good memory for who has been kind and supportive of them in the moments that really mattered. Service providers that act unempathetically, try to pursue business as usual and put profit first, are putting their long-term reputation at risk.

Now is the time to tell the right kind of stories, stories that will pull you through the next phases. But, how to understand what will have resonance with your community? The same way as always: through getting in touch with how behavior is changing, what narratives are becoming influential, which unmet needs are arising, and how other brands and providers are beginning to speak to these.

This is particularly important right now: consumers feel vulnerable, and are looking for reassurance and contact from brands to assuage their fears.

But how can we practice cultural and behavioral research remotely?

At STURM und DRANG we do so with our tried and tested indirect research methods, using mobile ethnographic observation and semiotic research to access consumer tensions, desires, and ultimately, “Jobs to be done”. In this indirect research approach we’re true to the principles of psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz, who famously stated, „The mind does not know what the tongue wants“. Our answer to that is to observe the tongue, not ask the mind.

Some examples of how this can work:

1 “Jobs to be Done” Online Community Research

On our Online Community platforms, consumers (or employees) can exchange ideas, record video-responses, respond to stimulus, and participate in co-creation exercises, all from the comfort of their laptop or mobile phone.

This tool is especially valuable in observing social-distancing requirements, whilst getting very close to the emotional state of research-subjects. We watch them respond to brands, activities and to each other, generating a sense of mass dynamics at play.

2 Digital Ethnography

We use online platforms for ethnographic research, guiding our participants to relate their experiences and thoughts through a diary-format. With our mobile application, Me-Mo, consumers can record photography, video, text and screenshots on-the-go. This allows us to get detailed insight into their state of mind before, during and after particular situations. We experience consumer behavior up-close, in the moment it’s happening, and without interruption by third-parties.

At a time when public life is shut down, this research methodology is more valuable than ever in giving us unique access into intimate spheres and moments within the home. It also acquires new relevance for shopper-research specifically. In the face of long queues and shut-down retail spaces, more shopping is now taking place in-home, on-line.

3 Semiotic Narrative Research

Through an analysis of the discourses, stories, arguments, vocabularies and imagery in circulation in the news, on TV and in social media, we can understand the narratives that are shaping our view of the world, informing our values system, and ultimately the things we decide to do, use and consume.

The global lockdown has transformed the narratives around us; opinion leaders, newspapers, politicians and scientists are speaking in new ways, and giving priority to different things than they used to. It is no exaggeration to say that the crisis has called into question our previous value-system. Conducting semiotic research now helps us understand what new narratives are emerging, and how they may acquire more or less relevance in the post-Corona world.

4 Online Think Tanks

Online Platforms and collaboration tools allow us to bring together external experts (and stakeholders) for debate, collaboration and workshopping.

During these turbulent times, expert perspectives can be very valuable in contributing in-depth knowledge from particular fields, with a professional perspective on how the crisis may impact their area of focus. They are better-placed than consumers to look beyond the “abnormality” present moment and make valid hypotheses on how this will impact the future.


It bears repeating: during social distancing, tending closely to consumer relationships is more important than ever. Using these research tools we can keep brands on the pulse of the emerging needs, concerns and narratives arising out of the Corona crisis. This ensures they are moving forward together with their community in spite of the distance, and in time with the transforming consumer and business reality.


STURM und DRANG-Perspective

At STURM und DRANG we are convinced that companies, brands and people have the opportunity and responsibility to shape a preferable future. The post-Covid-19 world will be shaped by new cooperative ways of thinking and acting, which will not only find answers to the climate crisis but will also completely reorient our current (economic) system.


Author Stefan Baumann

Author: Stefan Baumann

Consumer psychologist Stefan Baumann develops brand visions and transformation and innovation concepts on the basis of insights into an evolving consumer culture. He consults frequently for owner-managed companies looking for effective renewal strategies to regain relevance in a changed market context.