The pandemic has gone on long enough to completely transform the way businesses function. The change in the way consumers behave and what they expect has affected not just B2C businesses but the B2B folks working behind the scenes as well. Thereby fuelling and steeply increasing the importance of digital mediums across industries. This is especially true when it comes to businesses that were so far adamant or too comfortable using traditional methods. If we look at this transformative period with the luxury of hindsight, we can break this chain of change into multiple phases.
The Lockdown Phase
Empty streets. Eerily silent cities and refreshingly clean air. This was the phase that impacted consumer behaviour the most. Our paranoia and the overarching sense of uncertainty were at its peak during the initial lockdown. No one knew what to expect. No one could say how long this would last and most of us were scared. Therefore, changing consumer behaviour and nudging them to adopt any digital platform was easiest in this phase. This, of course, worked best for essential service providers such as food delivery, logistics, online retail and medical advice products.
Since consumers could not go anywhere they had to rely almost entirely on online and digital services. Even those who had relied on their local shopkeepers for decades had to switch to digital platforms. These were the kind of users who would not convert and adopt new digital products because they were set in their ways and were comfortable. In simple terms, the lockdown forced people to go digital. In fact, a large chunk of people were introduced to digital platforms in this phase for the very first time. The kind of “new users” brands usually try to woo by spending heavily on discounts and cashback offers were acquired at close to no extra cost.
How Challenges Aided Digitisation and AI Adoption
Whenever there is widespread adoption, there are bound to be challenges and issues. Factors like fraud and the added pressure on many systems actually aided further digitisation. Whether it was bolstering existing service networks, expanding server capacity or simply creating a better digital shopping experience – brands had to strengthen their digital wings.
At this point, AI became especially important because products that consumers usually bought only after touching and feeling needed the creation of a digital experience. Brands like LensKart along with apparel and jewelry brands that offered virtual trials were well poised to do well during the pandemic and had a first mover advantage. Lenskart for example had projected around 20% revenue growth in FY 2020-21 despite the pandemic.
In fact, digital transformation projects that many companies had kept on the back burner became the need of the hour. Now that they were imperative, they had to be taken live as soon as possible. A simple example of this digital transformation is all the tools needed to support work from home. Today, nearly every organisation interacts on a platform like Zoom, Slack or Microsoft Team to facilitate work from home.
If we look at a larger example, consumer insights were used to draw inferences to boost sales. One brand, for example, saw that Chinese consumers were more willing to invest in steam cleaners and formula-based cleaning solutions. These were believed to be more effective. This insight helped Bissell (the brand in question) host online product demonstrations which led to a 500% increase in the sales of their steam mop in the first quarter of 2020.
The Social Distancing Phase
This phase proved that even as people began to venture out, they were still careful about exposure. The fear was still present and only a limited number of people stepped out at first. However, a major concern for physical spaces like malls and offices was to limit exposure and curb the number of people present at any one point of time.
Digital scheduling and simulating how many people could safely be present at a space while maintaining social distance was crucial. In India, the Aarogya Setu app was an example of how one could ensure this. Internationally, there were other uses of artificial intelligence that were used to help with contact tracing. Surveillance camera footage, robo-calls and every possible measure was put in place to collect data on COVID-19 patients. In fact, South Korea’s largest telecommunications company, KT, developed an AI-based COVID-19 research system. They used AI, Big Data and Medical Resources to improve risk assessment and support their Global Epidemic Prevention Platform.
|“The use of devices like mobile phones and smart wearables to monitor the health of the population will also become more normalized in the coming years. This will allow monitoring of vital signs and share patient data in real-time. This kind of technology would allow a doctor, sitting in Los Angeles, oversee the health of his/her patient while they are on a Safari in Africa”|
Drug Discovery and Vaccine Development
Artificial Intelligence also played a huge role in helping rule out candidates who are not going to qualify for testing reducing the time required for testing by a huge margin. The general time taken for any vaccine to go from Phase 1 to Phase 2 and 3 is much longer than what was acceptable during the pandemic. AI, therefore, played a pivotal role in hastening the discovery and vaccine development process.
Vaccine maker Moderna is one company that is using AI to help speed things up and has a drug in stage three of clinical trials. AI helps reduce the time taken for a product to go to market. For example, it helps repurpose existing FDA-approved drugs that don’t have to go through multiple clinical trial processes.
This, of course, has now set the bar higher and will hasten drug discovery for all kinds of new drugs in the future. Essentially, this is another way the pandemic has completely transformed the way clinical trials and real-world studies will be done. It even allows people to participate virtually from their homes during the initial research. As a result, the entire industry is moving past the archaic and low legacy technologies making way for newer faster processes.
The use of devices like mobile phones and smart wearables to monitor the health of the population will also become more normalized in the coming years. This will allow monitoring of vital signs and share patient data in real-time. This kind of technology would allow a doctor, sitting in Los Angeles, oversee the health of his/her patient while they are on a Safari in Africa. Imagine getting a notification with instant medical advice when your blood pressure drops or when you get infected – even before you sneeze.
Overall, the pandemic has digitised several parts of existing machineries across crucial sectors like hospitals, pharmaceutical research, transport, logistics etc. Beyond this, consumer facing brands have also adopted AI and digital platforms to help them serve their users better.
The bold new future will have the consumer at the center of any business. Delivering delight to consumers in today’s highly competitive world is now crucial. Even at Germin8, we had done work around social media listening to share insights with brands about the change in consumer behaviour post pandemic, in terms of how people exercise, consume food and approach personal hygiene.
The author, Dr Ranjit Nair, is CEO and Founder, Germin8 Solutions.