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Five lessons from lockdown: COVID-19, Hong Kong consumer sentiment, and brand implications

Five lessons from lockdown: COVID-19, Hong Kong consumer sentiment, and brand implications

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Brands and organisations in Hong Kong are very clearly feeling the impact of COVID-19 and there is no shortage of expert opinions on how to communicate during times of crisis. But with Hong Kong seemingly transitioning away from a state of panic, fear and frustration, brands may find it’s worth taking a more forward-looking perspective. 

In an attempt to understand potential sentiment shifts of Hong Kong consumers over the coming months, from 1 April to 9 April 2020, DDB Group Hong Kong conducted an online survey with 1,092 respondents. It investigated the expectations of brands now and in the future, as well as their general perspectives, in an attempt to both understand and anticipate behaviour.

What we discovered was that current sentiment is shifting and there is a journey ahead that will undoubtedly affect the way brands best connect with their customers. 

Here are five key lessons learnt on the series of phases customers expect to go through emotionally and importantly their corresponding expectations of brands as the market moves to recovery. All of which, starts with right now.

1. Hongkongers want concrete action now

Hongkongers very clearly want brands to implement concrete actions that can help society (50%). This was the case at the very beginning of the outbreak and remains so. While the shifts in expectations from the beginning of the crisis to the present situation seem marginal, it is interesting to observe that people are seemingly opening up more to receiving promotional messages as part of a brand’s action. As well as the general welcoming of financial benefits, this might also reflect a desire to see ‘signals’ of normality with offers, promotions and discounts suggesting that things may get back to normal soon.

While data shows that people are open to promotional communications, brands should make sure that these do not come across as opportunistic. At this stage, promotions should be connected to bigger attempts of making a difference or be founded in an attempt to help the people of Hong Kong – even if only with easing their financial worries.

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2. Hongkonger focus is shifting from the virus to the economy

While clearly still concerned about the health and wellbeing of themselves their loved ones’, Hongkonger minds are becoming more occupied with the virus’s impact on the overall economy (59%), and in turn, more specific concerns and worries related to personal job security (41%). Hongkongers are slowly but surely becoming more concerned about COVID-19’s long-term repercussions. 

For brands, this means that while consumers have injected new hygiene regiments into their daily lives, companies are expected to have done the same. This, in turn, will make hygiene and safety-related messages likely a green fee very soon. Instead, the attention of people is shifting more towards economically-driven worries, which implies that brands should shift their marketing efforts accordingly. It isn’t necessarily all about the fight against the virus anymore, it’s equally about the fight against the economic repercussions.

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3. Hongkongers will want to hear about promotions

When asked about what sort of communications people want and expect from brands after the outbreak is contained, the picture they painted was very clear: 59% want to hear about promotional offers. This clearly shows a more value-focused attitude shift related to people’s general concerns about the economy. 

Now is the time for brands to get their value strategies and plans in place. It is not going to be about who has the cheapest offer, but who in these economically challenging times can provide the best value – both literally and figuratively. Rational price point communication will probably not cut through the clutter nor connect with consumers as effectively. After all, concerns about the economy are closely tied to concerns about personal circumstances – something highly emotional. Further, people will remember the brands and companies that made a difference in the earlier stages of the pandemic, so concrete actions now might already be fundamental to whatever value messaging will come later on.

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4. Hongkongers have a cautious yet relatively optimistic outlook

When prompted about their attitude and behaviour after the containment of the virus, 66% of Hongkongers take a rather pragmatic, even slightly optimistic position by saying they would probably just return to normal life.

This data suggests that Hongkongers are yearning for normality. So, whatever brands can do to help people get back to ‘business as usual’, will certainly strike a chord with them. At this stage, brands will not be penalised for “getting on with things” as this will, in fact, cater to consumers’ desire to do so and reflect the sense of hope and optimism they possess within themselves.

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5. Hongkongers will want to treat themselves with experiences

After months of social distancing, working from home, and homeschooling, despite a more value-conscious attitude Hongkongers will undoubtedly want to treat themselves. When asked about how, 61% of respondents said they would travel, while significantly fewer people indicated they would buy luxury goods (13%). This suggests that Hongkongers will be more inclined to spend a premium on intangible experiences rather than materialistic goods.

While all this data might suggest a rather dire outlook for luxury brands, there is certainly opportunity to become relevant by offering not only goods but also experiences that go beyond the prestige of their products to elevate the overall purchase and ownership experience.

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Additional: Hongkongers have a larger emotional journey to get through

Based on these responses, we found that emotional response journey of Hongkongers’ can be mapped out across five phases, from the initial outbreak all the way to a full recovery, or perhaps more suitably named ‘progress’.

While Hong Kong currently sits in the midst of the frustration phase, brands undoubtedly need to be preparing for what’s ahead, in order to capitalize on what is expected to be a short-lived relief window.  Implications for brands are aplenty and the journey we have been able to map out should help brands navigate the coming months and relate to the changing emotional state of consumers.

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In conclusion, while so much has already been said about how brands can deal with the COVID-19 crisis, these points can hopefully provide a longer-term oriented view on how Hong Kong brands can connect with consumers in a more meaningful way as we gradually move into a recovery phase. 

Consumers are optimistic but not unaffected by the experience of recent months and although they look forward to normality, it will be a “new normal” that brands need to be prepared for. Even in these unprecedented times, brands will always have a role to play in Hongkongers’ lives when they manage to understand and tap into their feelings and emotional state, in a meaningful way.

Adrian Tso is Group Strategy Director at DDB Group Hong Kong.

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