COVID-19 reshaped the retail shopping landscape for good, and brands across the globe seek to understand what these shifts mean for their customer engagement strategy.

Our agency spent the past 18 months exploring the trends taking shape and strategizing what experiences will be most effective in helping retail brands win in our new world.

We looked at quantitative and qualitative data, distinguishing different shopping modes, and analyzed COVID-era shifts to see how both types of consumers are now making decisions. We asked the “WHY” behind these choices to uncover clear insights into people’s “whole lives.” These insights painted a picture of the various influences that impact consumer decision-making habits, illuminating three distinct shifts brands need to make today and every day moving forward.

Give Before Taking

The first major shift is that brands must seek to understand what people want vs. what they expect — and what people want is whatever they want and like. Brands that understand this nuance can connect consumers with their core offerings by creating the desired experiences consumers want to engage with, upending expectations and conveying a sense of “knowing them.”

Previously, consumers would only walk into an AT&T retail store if they needed a phone or were having an issue with their phone. Now, AT&T is using its retail spaces to make the experiential and brand connection a priority, without asking people to purchase anything up front. The result? Consumer affinity toward the brand increases and they’re more likely to become customers.

For example, AT&T leveraged the power of entertainment IP during the release of “Wonder Woman 1984,” transforming its flagship store into an experience destination for Wonder Woman fans. It included a massive Wonder Woman sculpture that weighed 350 pounds and had a wingspan of 18 feet, as well as authentic costumes and movie props, a comic book shop, a watch lounge, photo moments using Wonder Woman’s iconic golden wings, and an interactive multiplayer game called “The Lasso of Truth.”

Consumers engaged eagerly with AT&T on a new level that established trust and a path for brand loyalty.

Embrace Interests Adjacent to Your Brand

Many of today’s brands are isolationist, meaning they foolishly believe their customer is only choosing its own brand, and not that of a competitor. The biggest opportunity we see for the future of brands is opening up their ecosystem to provide their customer with more holistic solutions. This makes the brand more valuable, conveying a sense of “I can get EVERYTHING here,” not to be confused with today’s thinking of “I can get it ALL here.”

To do this, brands must embrace interests adjacent to their core offering without concerns of share of wallet. People who buy Nike don’t just buy Nike-branded items, and they’re not only thinking about sportswear. For example, through data analysis, we might find that the Nike fan also likes Target, Patagonia, Le Creuset, and Expedia, and is most influenced by their sister.

Understanding these adjacencies enables you to become the “reference brand” where everything else is contextualized by YOU! Differentiate by becoming the brand consumers look to in order to find the other brands they want to shop, enabling them to find EVERYTHING.

How do retail brands achieve this? Data.

Ask about family, pets, routines, feelings about lockdown, stressors and wishes. Seek to understand the whole person. The lack of seeing the whole person turns out to be one of the biggest brand mistakes both pre- and post-pandemic. When companies categorize their customers into one group, and market to only one part of their person, they miss the opportunity to create a relationship by tapping into the adjacencies.

Brands Must Engage vs. Selling in Every Channel 

The path to purchase looks very different from the path to loyalty. All channels have an opportunity to create irrational believers, ultimately a brand’s best consumers. If you’re only building a path to purchase, you’re only focused on servicing the sale vs. all of the other things a customer cares about.

Use exploratory moments and access to things people care about to tap into emotions and strengthen deep meaningful connections with customers. For example, the innovative skincare brand Untamed Humans offers experiences like cooking classes and tarot readings to promote its “whole health” brand position and give consumers more ways to engage with the brand than just the product.

These three strategies are proven ways to shift resources that put people and relationships first. Brands that do this are the ones that will win.