COVID-19 brought about worldwide transformation at an unprecedented rate. To keep up with developments and meet the public’s new needs and demands, companies need to change just as rapidly. “The pandemic had a huge impact on consumer behavior, changing it quite drastically,'' says Fjord’s Esther Duran. “COVID-19 made people aware of what really matters to them. This opens up ample opportunities for companies that are willing to move with the times and can adapt to this new awareness.” 

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We are living in momentous times, says Esther Duran. “The pandemic forced us to face the facts. It’s been a distressing, yet refreshing experience that has completely altered the way we look at life, our place in the community, society, and on the planet. It seems that in the pre-COVID era, we had forgotten what’s truly important.” 

The Fjord Trends explore what lies ahead for the future of business, technology, design, people, and innovation. They provide organizations with context and insights that can support better decision-making. While the trends mainly focused on business, tech, and design in previous years, it’s the human angle that dominates this year.

“Technology can do a lot, but it can never be human or empathic. No matter how much technology you apply, unless you really understand the problems that humans are encountering, you will never be able to solve them.” This is exactly why Duran thinks this year’s trends are ‘beautiful’. “They really approach situations from a human mindset.”

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A shared sense of displacement

All of a sudden everything has changed. How we work, how we learn, how we shop and how we interact with one another—nothing is the way it used to be. Organizations and brands need to acknowledge and adapt to this sense of collective displacement and find new ways to reach consumers. This development is one of the most significant Fjord Trends for this year—and will likely continue to hold sway for many years to come.  

Duran: “Shifts in the way we live our lives now can have an enormous long-term impact. As people and organizations look for new, better ways to do things, the world is in a constant state of flux. Society is undergoing an evolution that encourages us to pursue the things we deem really important."

"As an example, everything changed when we found out that you don’t actually have to physically be in an office to be productive—that a computer and a decent internet connection is enough to be able to work from anywhere. This realization led to a true exodus from city centers during the second lockdown. Anyone who had the opportunity to flee to a faraway holiday home or family living in the countryside did so.”  

This exodus from cities has a significant impact on urban infrastructure. Offices are being converted into apartments, hotels are becoming hospitals and parking lots are being transformed into outdoor gyms and soccer pitches. The structural landscapes of cities, and the way we live in them, have forever changed. 

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"Brands should focus on building a convincing narrative, establishing a strong purpose and adopting a clear positioning that’s not short-lived but, rather is instilled in the DNA of the organization.” 

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Empathy as a driving force 

In this day and age, consumers tend to prefer companies that are socially engaged. Organizations that stand for change, and embrace diversity and sustainability are most likely to get the popular vote. Duran is convinced that companies that fail to follow suit will ultimately fall behind.

This theme is captured in another important Fjord Trend: the empathy challenge. “The time when we found it acceptable to test makeup on animals or have our clothes made in factories under disgraceful working conditions is long gone. Human empathy plays an important role in helping us to decide which products we buy, and which we don’t. Brands need to show us that they’re doing things right—that they are, for instance, selling honest products, promoting sustainability, and ensuring that their boardroom isn’t a bastion of white males in suits.”

So, what should brands focus their energy on? “On building a convincing narrative, establishing a strong purpose and adopting a clear positioning that’s not short-lived, but rather is instilled in the DNA of the organization.” 

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The physical shopping experience remains indispensable 

COVID-19 didn’t only change how we perceive brands and companies, but it also altered the way we buy from them. Accenture Interactive’s Marije Gast is curious to see how the retail landscape will unfold in the future.

“When physical stores had to close their doors during the first lockdown, consumers immediately turned to online outlets. Many brands saw online sales spike like never before. Similarly, the revenue of supermarket delivery services increased by nearly 50 percent. Businesses like HelloFresh, which does meal kit deliveries, and online flower boutiques, like Bloomon, also benefited greatly from the shift." 

"Yet, despite the massive turn to digital, consumers still don’t want to let go of physical stores. It’s why we all frantically ran to storefronts to do our Christmas shopping like we’ve always done. This begs the question: What exactly is the appeal of physical stores for consumers, and perhaps more importantly, how can we match this personal experience in the digital world?"

Dutch e-bike market leader Stella tried to answer this question in its own way and integrated a personal element into its online shopping process. During the COVID-19 crisis, the company introduced the pick-up experience: customers who had purchased a bicycle online could collect it—fully COVID-19-proof—at the Stella factory in the south of Holland and enjoy a very festive and enthusiastic, balloon-filled welcome from employees.

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In 2020, supermarket delivery services in the Netherlands increased by nearly 50 percent in revenue due to the pandemic. [Source: FoodService Instituut Nederland]

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Reinventing the hospitality business model

Hotels, restaurants, and bars have been hit hard by COVID-19. For them, the only way to survive is to find new, creative ways to stay in business. This reality led to the emergence of a whole new industry: that of luxury takeaway dinners. In larger cities especially, the option to pick up restaurant-quality multi-course takeaway dinners proved a huge success. Hotels came up with a successful formula too: they invited guests to spend the night and enjoy dinner and breakfast in their rooms.

For other companies, it’s a lot more challenging to come up with alternative models or services, explains Gast. “Take for instance Dutch flag airline KLM, which is currently facing an enormous dilemma. What value can an airline offer during a time when people are flying significantly less often, or even not at all? For KLM, this conundrum calls for a total reinvention.”

Dutch railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) finds itself under pressure, too. With people being discouraged from traveling by train (unless they absolutely must), the business is battling to find ways it can be of service to the public. The company’s CCO, Tjalling Smit, seized the moment and posted a personal video message on LinkedIn in which he explains how NS plans to improve operations going forward.

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"This is the ideal moment to create new collaborations and ways of working, and make the right choices from an ethical and sustainability perspective."

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“That’s the ‘good’ side of a crisis: it often marks the start of an era of new ideas and innovations,” explains Gast. “A crisis often presents the perfect opportunity for companies to critically evaluate where they are and brainstorm ways to approach their work better, more efficiently and more sustainably.”  

Where it has worked, and where it hasn’t

In practice, this fundamental truth has led to a number of interesting initiatives. Gast references Dutch beer brand Bavaria, which started to use alcohol from unused barrels of beer to make hand sanitizer after the closure of bars and restaurants. “One of the key reasons why this initiative was received so well is because Bavaria stayed very close to its core business,” says Gast.

Louis Vuitton followed a similar approach in France. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the fashion house started producing protective garments and masks for hospital staff. Similarly, drawing on its cosmetics background, Dior also started to manufacture hand sanitizer. “As long as a brand stays true to its own field, people will find initiatives like these ‘credible’ and therefore value the gesture.”  

Not every ‘well-intended’ campaign strikes the right note. “When Coca-Cola launched the ‘Open Like Never Before’ campaign in August 2020—motivating for more social openness after the pandemic—people questioned its sincerity. It gets worse than that, though. Just ask the people behind Dutch media company RUMAG. The business faced an onslaught of criticism when it came out that their campaign to raise funds for the Red Cross, through the sale of t-shirts, made the company a fair amount of money on the side too. RUMAG tried to escape blame, but by then, the damage had already been done.” 

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Fjord Trends 2021

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Sweet teams are made of …what exactly?

It’s not only the exchange between brands and consumers that has changed under COVID-19. The dynamics within companies are rapidly transforming, too. Gast: “Walls within organizations are breaking down, structures are changing dramatically. As mentioned, not long ago, people were skeptical about the whole working from home concept, but now we know first-hand how productive and effective it can be."

"COVID-19 didn’t only change where we work, but also how we work. The sweet teams are made of this trend talks about the altered relationship between people and their work, and between employers and their teams, and how these shifts present numerous opportunities for innovation.” 

Gast and Duran are optimistic about the possibilities ahead, particularly for the Dutch market. “Now that time and location are no longer obstacles, nothing stands in the way of assembling the best people and expertise, anywhere, anytime,” says Gast. “This is the ideal moment to create new collaborations and ways of working, and to make the right choices from an ethical and sustainability perspective. In doing so, we can leverage this momentous time in history to genuinely help the world and better society.” 

Need help in finding the right direction for your company or brand? Feel free to reach out to Esther or Marije.

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Esther Duran is Group Design Director at Fjord (part of Accenture Interactive) and Marije Gast is Lead Experience Design at Accenture Interactive. 

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Check out the other articles in our customer experience series:

Marije Gast

Associate Director – Accenture Interactive, Experience Design Lead, the Netherlands

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