How can businesses predict the unpredictable?

Making the right decisions, at the right time, to ensure the right impact is a core ambition of any business.


But when there is a global crisis, such as the one we’re facing, the playbook we once relied on is suddenly out of date.

One of the most important elements of Covid-19 and its impact on society has been the emergence of predictive science. Estimating the spread of coronavirus and how it can be battled, its impact on communities and behaviour, the way the virus is changing the fabric of society.

And one of the most fascinating themes of such predictive science is trying to understand whether and how shifts in people’s habits, attitudes, values and behaviours will endure. How the daily shortcuts we instinctively and subconsciously rely on, have altered. Such changes mean we need to be able to create modelling processes that will accurately record and predict the complex transformations that are already occurring.

Clearly, one of the most important things companies will need to do as they plan for a post-coronavirus world is attempt to predict the unpredictable. And, through that, get a better understanding of what truly influences the way we form, change and entrench our habits. Such modelling research will form the bedrock of the way companies rethink strategy and try to reflect and inspire their customers. If the future is different (and it almost certainly will be) we need to understand how far these habits – the daily personalised shortcuts that identify who we are and why we opt for certain brands – will be different too.

If we want to predict the unpredictable when it comes to habit and behaviour then we need to study, listen, learn and adapt. Not at some vague point in the future when things have calmed down, but now, in the maelstrom that’s enveloping us when so much of life is both on ice and yet in flux too.

In essence, how we think and behave are driven by two different compulsions – our instant instincts and those driven by slower deliberation and logic. Instinctive habits are automatic – the lunchtime sandwich or fitness regime we’re used to, for instance. They’re triggered by cues in our environments such as time and place. And they satisfy our cravings for rewards. Habits don’t require us to make too many awkward deliberations and drawn-out decision-making. Research suggests that 43 per cent of all that we do every day is performed out of habit. Plus, it takes, on average, 66 days for a new behaviour to become an automatic response – for it to turn into a system of cues, followed by the routine itself which sparks emotional and physical rewards.

So, some of the habits we formed pre-coronavirus and which have shifted during the pandemic will change – but brands need to identify which ones and by how much. Some will be short-term and thus potentially insignificant whilst others will be more profound and shape the way companies interact with loyal and new customers. The trouble is, how can we plan for a future if we are unsure what that future looks like?

Enormous sets of data have been essential in identifying things such as infection rates, herd immunity scenarios and how best to flatten the curve, so improved data collection and sharing can enhance projections of what’s to come for business. Rather than make premature predictions, responsible companies should be trying to focus on improving the gathering, dissemination and interpretation of this data.

When it comes to scientific prediction research, most of the work that modelers have been doing so far in this epidemic is to characterise the epidemiology and try to estimate key parameters. Seeking to understand before trying to describe trends and suggest strategy. Once such numbers are pinned down, modelers can move onto what’s called ‘situational awareness’ so as to understand the dynamics of a situation and interpret projections with greater accuracy.

Behavioural science provides a key to unlocking these conundrums because it focuses on what really matters when it comes to the way businesses interact with their customers – why people do the things they do and how those habits are buffeted by the winds of change.

To predict with greater accuracy, you need to consider multiple possible futures, evaluate their likelihood of actually occurring and determine the potential drivers and influences of them. You can then identify the actions you want to accelerate or mitigate against these possible futures. We are working with Mark Earls to create a predictive model that reflects this thinking, to help create more certainty and proactivity in this very uncertain world.

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