Digital dinners or a need for closeness – what comes after physical distancing

The COVID-19 crisis is still holding the world in its grip. Some countries are reporting a flattening of the curve and are, therefore, starting to slowly and carefully open up society again. Others are reporting potential new spikes and a possible second wave of infections. When writing about striking a balance between Solidarity and Protectionism, we mentioned clear expectations towards brands to play a critical role during the pandemic. Continuing this series of COVID-19-related thought pieces, in this article we will focus on the long-term effect that social distancing might have on individuals, the question of whether we will see a continuation of digital dinners or, instead, an increased need for physical closeness, and what it might mean for brands.

Keeping your distance

Social distancing, now referred to as physical distancing by the WHO (in and of itself a branding issue) has been dictating how people interact with each other for weeks. Many are taking solace in these measures being a temporary solution here and now, but there is a real threat of second (or more) waves of the pandemic that might require society going into lockdown again during autumn or winter 2020. Additionally, with the general benefits of physical distancing becoming more and more obvious – Sweden, for example, has seen a significant drop in cases of other illnesses like norovirus and the common flu – some experts, like Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, even go as far as saying people should “just forget about shaking hands” in the future. No matter how the coming weeks and months play out, we can already see the effects of people living in full or partial lockdowns.

A large-scale social experiment

We are currently in the middle of a one-of-a-kind, large-scale (forced) social experiment. Considering the psychological effects of physical distancing, some go as far as calling the COVID-19 pandemic a slow-motion disaster with potentially widespread and persistent mental-health fallout, referring to various studies linking isolation in crises to psychological burdens like PTSD. While these are extreme predictions, it is clear that curfews and spending much of our time alone or locked up with our partners will have an effect on behaviours, values and attitudes. Not to mention divorce rates.

As Ben Evans, looking specifically into digital behaviours, recently wrote in his newsletter, “[...] some things were very clearly already happening and will now happen faster, [...]  and some [...] might not have happened without this. But, not all of this adoption will stick once we do get back to normal. We’ll try everything, because we’re forced to, but not all of it will work.”

What will stick?

With people adapting to distancing and coping with loneliness, how will long-term behaviours change? And with much being tested now, what will stick? It is hard to make predictions about such a complex topic. However, below we will outline a number of developments observed in our research and what they might mean for brands – now and in the future. These are not mutually exclusive but rather overlapping and we will most likely see them blending into each other in the coming weeks, months and years.

  • Hitting the trails – a new-found longing for nature
    In countries that have not (yet) implemented strict lockdown procedures, people are increasingly trying to spend more time outside and in nature. Longer trips to forests and nature reserves or short walks in parks have increased as has the number of “walking dates” with friends and “walk and talks” with colleagues. And as the New York Times recently wrote, “with little else to do – no spinning classes, lap swim hours, boot camps or barre – a lot of people are turning to (or getting back to) running”. Post-Corona we will most likely see a return to cinemas, restaurants and bars. We believe, however, that this will be contrasted with regular encounters with nature. And brands need to understand how they can support this duality of lifestyle – just as we want hassle-free experiences online, we want it in nature as well. Brands need to ask themselves how they can support nature-loving runners or convenient hikers, for example – everything from multi-functional clothes to trekking maps, support for walk-and-talk meetings like recording and transcription, etc.

    An example of a brand adjusting is Lidingöloppet, the largest cross-country event in the world held annually in September in Lidingö, Sweden. Realizing that many other running races have been cancelled due to COVID-19, the organizers started a virtual training series on running app Strava. For 10 weeks, Stockholm runners are given the opportunity to test terrain trails and compete virtually, choosing themselves the day and time to run the current route.

  • Let’s do this remotely – video conferencing becomes mainstream
    While services like Skype and Google Hangouts have existed for years, adoption rates are accelerating during the pandemic. Video service Zoom, for example, increased the number of daily users to 300 million, up from just ten million at the end of December last year. Everyone, from your best friend to grandma, is suddenly becoming a FaceTime pro. And for the first time ever, remote working is tested for real with employees forced to work from home and many companies realizing that digital meetings might actually be as good as, or even better than physical meetings. This will most likely have a significant impact on companies or whole industries. Let’s look at the travel and hospitality industries as an example. Some estimates state that business travellers account for 12% percent of airlines' passengers and might represent up to 75% of an airline's profits on certain flights. At the same time around 40% of all hotel guests are business travellers. With video conferencing presenting itself as a viable and cost effective solution, these numbers will certainly be affected and force companies to adjust and rethink strategies and business models.

    Some hotels, for example, have found a way of using the situation to their advantage by heavily promoting themselves to locals who, pre-Corona, might not have been an obvious target group. As one location put it: "To our locals, we understand the pressures of living and working from home. For those needing away time while not actually going 'away' we invite you to have a staycation." While this approach, due to country-specific restrictions, does not work everywhere, and the loss of business travellers will still have a major effect on the bottom line, it shows that even during demanding times there might be a way of adjusting business and finding new sources of revenues now and in the future.

  • No more digital detox – screens are winning, maybe
    Even though we are increasingly trying to spend more time outside our homes, we are still mostly confined to our own apartments and houses. This has resulted in an increase in screen time for many, leading some to argue that COVID-19 has ended the screen-time debate and that screens have won. This is not only true for mobile devices but also consumption on the big screen as video game sales have been soaring in recent weeks and Netflix has added nearly 16 million new subscribers in the first three months of the year. The view on this development is controversial, and considering that phrases like “digital detox” and “screen-free saturdays” had been trending before the crisis, brands will need to strike a balance here.

    On the one hand, there is an opportunity to take advantage of a potentially increased tolerance towards spending time in front of screens and using digital solutions –  ordering food and shopping online have seen increased adoption rates with even sceptics now embracing the convenient and Corona-friendly services. On the other hand, once we open up society, we might see a counter reaction. As mentioned above, the convenience of working from home will most likely stick and people will work more and more remotely. But post-working hours we might see an increased desire to shut our laptops and turn off our phones to get some screen-free time. This is a development that companies need to take into consideration.

  • Enough alone time – a growing need for belonging
    Many of us have been part of digital afterworks or an increased number of Skype hang outs or business meetings with colleagues recently and “Digital cookalongs” are no longer an abstract concept but a reality for many. A variety of creative digital solutions to combat loneliness and getting back a sense of normality have emerged during the past couple of weeks, the previously mentioned Netflix Party being a great example. With people staying at home, it becomes obvious that there is an increased need for a sense of belonging – we want to be part of a group and interact with friends and family, even while on lockdown. While pre-Corona this need mostly used to be met face-to-face through dinners, hang outs at bars, board game nights or group sports activities, the current situation is forcing everyone to adjust. To many, it does not matter much if they are part of a community physically or digitally – as long as there is a sense of belonging. We believe this to be an great opportunity for brands – both now and in the future, once lockdowns are lifted.

    For example, Barry’s, a boutique fitness brand, was forced to close its gyms in most countries. Beginning of April the company decided to adjust and started offering online group classes saying that “Just because we’re at home doesn’t mean we can’t be together” and cleverly promoting the solution as “more classes, more variety, more Barry’s”. While this was born as a quick fix, we would not be surprised if the company stumbled into a great long-term addition to its regular gym classes.

  • The death of FOMO – everyone is missing out
    The concept of FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out – has been talked about a lot in recent years. And while many see it as something of a Generation Z-specific concern, it is a real and researched phenomenon. With almost everyone in lockdown, we are – all of us and maybe for the first time ever – finding ourselves in the same situation: no one is missing out on crazy events because there are none and there are no friends having the time of their lives on vacation on Bali to be jealous of because nobody is travelling. While this may sound depressing at first, there is a clear upside to it. From what we were able to observe, many seem to be more content and less stressed. As Mashable wrote recently: “Remember FOMO? Yeah, neither do we.

    We believe that this could have a significant impact on consumption patterns, and therefore brands, in the future. While being used to always chasing the “next best thing”, often fueled by aggressive marketing campaigns, there is a real chance of consumers developing a sense of “good enough” during the pandemic – fueled by other factors such as economic uncertainty, for example. Sure, we can see an increased adoption of online shopping. But at the same time, priorities might be shifting for many consumers.

  • Of course you should write a book – priorities are shifting
    Working from home, skipping the daily commute to work or maybe even being affected by reduced working hours or lay offs, we have a lot of extra time on our hands right now. As a result, we can see many taking up forgotten or new activities or hobbies, finally getting started on ‘that thing that you have wanted to do for a long time’. In Sweden we have seen an acute shortage of yeast, for example, probably due to a spike in the number of amateur bakers stepping up their bread game. Others are working their way through cooking books, using the time to write books or focusing on family time. Whatever the coping strategy, we can see a tendency of people making more deliberate choices when it comes to using that extra time.

    And while baking pizza seems like a trivial and short-term adjustment, we believe that it might just be an indication of a bigger change taking place. For many, the crisis has put a new perspective on life and their personal priorities – maybe there is simply more value in spending time on creative projects or family instead of work or unrewarding behaviours and activities. An increased focus on self-realization might be what we will come out with on the other side of this crisis – with effects on consumption behaviours and perhaps a more critical view on companies and brands.

Whatever the future will look like post-Corona, we believe that we are currently undergoing radical developments and changes. Some of these are temporary while some will stick and fundamentally alter the way we act and interact with each other – from a growing appreciation for being outside and new digital behaviours to gaining new perspectives and priorities. We believe that companies will need to take these developments into consideration – and ideally embrace them – when interacting with consumers, both in terms of coping with the crisis right now but also to be prepared for what comes after COVID-19.

These and similar issues are something that we are currently discussing with many of our clients. If you would like to hear more of our thoughts or how we could help your brand steer through the crisis and come out on the other side stronger than before, feel free to get in touch with us at or

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