Before COVID (BC), restaurants and retailers were attempting to balance the support of their legacy business while investing in evolving digital models to augment and drive growth. But let’s face it. Even though digital, mobile, real-time, social media, and other disruptive digital trends were already pushing markets in new directions, you never had enough executive support, resources and budget, and belief or validation in all that you were trying to do to push the brand forward in a digital economy.

As the saying goes, that was then, this is now.

It’s important to know that you are not alone. In fact, your work is more important than ever before. After COVID’s disruption (AD), consumers are now more connected, informed, and mindful. They’re concerned for their health and the health of their loved ones. McKinsey estimates that 70 percent of consumers will not resume normal, out of home, activities for the near future, and they will take guidance from true experts on when it’s safe to do so. McKinsey also discovered that e-commerce adoption had radically accelerated by 10 years in a matter of a few months. Add to this, the psychological consensus that it takes an average of 66 days to form new behaviors and you have the makings of a new genre of consumerism.

Essentially, what we’re witnessing is the rise of a new market of consumers. I refer to them as Generation-Novel or Generation-N. They’ve learned to become digital first. They had no other choice during extended shelter-in-place orders. Generation-N was also bound by the somatic marker that is COVID-19. They felt fear, confusion, anger and frustration, they celebrated front line workers, they collectively hoped for a better world. This powerful, emotional bookmark will forever be tied to memories formed in these times. They also will never look at, or take for granted, toilet paper or hand sanitizer ever again. What’s more, they’ve come to expect empathetic, personalized, and digital- and safety-first experiences. Brands that don’t understand or engage Generation-N this way will find themselves on the wrong side of decisions and ultimately relationships.

It can even be taken a step further. Earlier this month, Salesforce and Hathway released a report that argues that underperforming restaurant brands need to focus on a special subset of Generation-N—the high-value customers. Even though these customers make up about a quarter of the population right now, they are responsible for nearly 50 percent of the dining revenue. Through their research and consumer modeling, they were able to find that the chain restaurants that are currently thriving are the ones that are capitalizing on the preferences, motivations and behaviors of these high-value customers.

Adapt or Die

Everything has changed and nothing has changed. Digital is 20 years in the making and disruption was inevitable. Now it’s a mandate. There’s finally a sense of urgency in your work. Now it needs purpose and there’s nothing more noble than using digital to innovate and foster real world experiences and relationships.

In Salesforce’s Global Shopping Index research, 84 percent of customers said that the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. The question for you is what can an innovative, new, and fresh experience look, feel, smell, and taste like?

Whatever you do, please don’t call this the new or next normal. It limits creativity. Normal implies convention. And, normal BC was part of the problem to begin with. We’re in an interim normal, a nebulous operating space that’s honestly, deceiving. I think that it’s normal, pun intended, to want to go back to what we know. To get back to business. But this isn’t a race toward normalcy. It’s a moment of transition and reflection to build the future we, our customers, really want.

If you had to invent the concept of dining with 2020 as your muse, with digital and physical worlds now completely blurred, what would it look like?

If you had to make bold decisions about the future, today, what would you do from scratch, without previous templates, assumptions, or biases? 

If you had to know the absolute differences in standards, values, and aspirations between Generation-N and traditional customers, what would you do differently?

Asking original questions, inspired by the empathy that you feel from being human and disrupted yourself, is game-changing and hopefully life-changing. Remember, humanity is a powerful source of meaningful, creative inspiration.

You’re no longer a brand trying to put more “butts in seats” during peak hours. You’re no longer a brand trying to adapt to curbside, BOPIS, or delivery while balancing traditional “butts in seats” models. You’re no longer a brand trying to figure out how to compete against ghost kitchens in your elusive free time. You’re all these things and more. Aim for most valuable customers and learn how to use traditional and digital means to deliver value-added, sought after experiences. That’s what this is all about. Disruption happens to you or because of you. Choose the latter!

Now, you’re a human-centered, digital- and mobile-first brand delivering meaningful and fulfilling experiences to consumers that matter to them, in whatever way you and they define value. After all, that’s what relationships are all about, mutual value.

Create a Future That Inspires Connection and Fosters Loyalty

Walt Disney once said, “Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly on the future.”

Though you face great challenges, let’s just be honest, no one could have prepared you for this, which is exactly the reason why this is also your time. The landscape was disrupted and equalized for everyone. You’re not just competing for the future; you’re also operating in an evolving state of disruption. Innovation in digital, customer experiences, and services are now just a way of business.

Please remember, times, trends, tastes, and people change, regardless of the circumstance. Your business model, your mindset and your heartset, should reflect this belief and value system. People count for everything. If you think about it, you offer something more than just feeding people, you give them something special, that they crave, that they savor, that they share with loved ones. Even though digital is the OS we’re building upon right now, what we’re really talking about is reimaging what it means to serve people today and tomorrow.

Let this disruption inspire you to break free of all that held you back. Let it all inspire you to offer light to your customers, to the people who truly matter. Invest in relationships. Invest in meaningful engagement. Invest in personalization. Doing so will create new value and build stronger relationships and drive greater outcomes and returns.

Among all of this digital and societal disruption, it’s truer now than before, humanity is the killer app.

Brian Solis is a world-renowned digital anthropologist, best-selling author and keynote speaker. As Global Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce, Brian studies digital transformation, enterprise innovation, experience design, and the future of work and consumerism.

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