Shopping in survival mode: the pandemic’s threat to brand loyalty

Kate Downer

Our consumer lead researcher Kate Downer talks about how the current climate is impacting on brand loyalty… with a little help from behavioural science.

For me, a silver lining to this lockdown malarkey has been the rise of the virtual conference. I’ve been able to attend European events with pretty much total time-efficiency, and US ones without jet-lag or much of a carbon footprint.

Unsurprisingly, the impact of the pandemic on ‘how we shop’ and our relationships with brands has been a key theme in the sessions I’ve sat in on. More specifically, I’m hearing a consistent message that brand loyalty – and the role of the brand itself – have been eroded.

In the last few months I’ve bought plain flour when I needed self-raising, because it was the only flour left (I mean, you just add baking powder, but the point is, there was only one kind available). I’ve bought plain flour when I didn’t really need any, because I knew that there hadn’t been flour in any stores in my neighbourhood for several weeks. I’ve been conscious of the queue of people outside the store, and of being close to people I don’t know, and I know I’ve been in and out quickly, shopping strictly from a list and then adding in a few random items that 2019 me wouldn’t have looked at twice (paying full price for Magnums? Unprecedented times!)

In other words, I’ve been buying what’s available, or what I could pick out quickly. I’ve been in whatever the first-world, middle-class, urban professional version of survival mode is.

I learned at one of these conferences that there’s an official behavioural science name for this kind of decision making, and it’s not just me who acts this way. It’s called naïve allocation, or naïve diversification.

Essentially, if you’re in the situation on the left, you’re likely to pick up products that span a wide range of options: maybe some cereal, some of those croissants you can see, and a couple of packaged cakes from the back. You’re likely to pick up these different products, designed for different eating occasions and probably not all usual items on your shopping list, even if you weren’t seeking them out when you turned into the aisle.

In the scenario on the right, you’ll move through the aisle processing different fixtures one by one, and you’re likely to put a more limited range of products in your basket overall. That’s because naïve allocation bias prompts us to choose more diverse products when we choose simultaneously, as we would in the left-hand picture; and a less diverse range of options when we choose sequentially, as we would in the right.

Lots of my trips to the supermarket at the start of lockdown were like the picture on the left. Let’s imagine I’ve got ‘tinned tomatoes’ on my list – because let’s face it, most of us buy them at least now and again.

At the start of lockdown,

  • I shopped knowing that I wanted ‘some tinned tomatoes,’ rather than ‘a specific brand of tinned tomatoes.’ For one of the first times in my career as a consumer, I was shopping with my eyes open to the fact that I cared far more about finding the product itself, than about having a choice of brands
  • I shopped in a weird mindset, where even though I knew stockpiling was unhelpful, selfish and generally bad, part of me still wanted to stockpile, and lots of the people around me were doing so, which persuaded me it was OK by providing social proof that others were engaging in that behaviour (I resisted!)
  • I was conscious that suddenly everyone’s job was less secure and none of the supermarkets had enough products, and wondering if prices were about to spiral and whether I should try to spend less money. I was reading everywhere about ‘going down a brand’ to economise, and giving serious consideration to the economy own-label ranges, which I don’t usually buy
  • I didn’t know what naïve diversification bias was, but I was definitely under its influence

All these things led to me compromising away from my usual CPG brands, and maybe breaking my loyalties to them longer-term. There was a point where I couldn’t get my usual tinned tomatoes – only a brand I’d never heard of. It turns out that this new brand was fine. Now, I approach the tinned tomatoes bay with that brand in mind. It’s a stupidly simple example, but I’ve formed a new preference – for the reasons I’ve described above.

Brands are many things, and it’d take more space than I’ve got here to start going into what they all are. But I think one of those things is a short-cut. A brand represents a set of values, messages, and a few reflections of who I think I am. And short-cuts are handy both when you’re trying to shop quickly in “survival mode”, and when you’re buying something pretty dull, like tinned tomatoes.

You don’t exactly stand there agonising, right? You don’t need a tin of tomatoes to tell you who you are. But you know those tomatoes will sit in your cupboard, making you feel a little bit less panicked about what you’re going to eat, if the supermarkets all close their doors and we go back into full lockdown. You approach the fixture, all types of heuristics in full swing. And you have a serving of (slightly more conscious) availability heuristic on the side: you’ve used this brand before, and the experience was good. So, in line with the availability heuristic, it comes to mind readily. Hurray!

So how are brands going to build their role back up? And is that even what they need to do? Will we finally see brands taking actions that aim to increase penetration, rather than frequency or share of wallet? Are the laggards about to realise that what they often call ‘loyalty’ is really ‘inertia’ or just plain old ‘availability’?


I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on how the pandemic’s changed shopper thinking and behaviour – and what brands need to do next.