Accelerating innovation through diversity and inclusion
COVID-19 has amplified accessibility challenges to certain products and services that are essential to Canadians in their daily lives. On some occasions, specific populations have been disproportionately affected and left with no alternatives other than exposing their health to access what they need.
Canada, one of the world’s most diverse countries, is providing companies with ideal conditions for testing inclusive product and service innovations. This allows Canadian retailers to transform how they serve the diverse needs of consumers here who face significant inclusion barriers. In many ways, that innovation is coming to life, from ramping up e-commerce platforms to offering delivery services or in-home consultations.
These innovations demonstrate the value of inclusivity to serve those facing barriers, ignite innovation in service models, and access new, untapped audiences who benefit from the change. As such, we view that COVID-19 has accelerated one of our themes explored in Part 1 FutureConsumer.Now. about the adoption of a global mindset as brands leverage diversity and inclusion as driver for innovation.
Revisiting the concept of inclusion of the silver economy, for instance, it has been incredibly impactful for ageing populations that have been one of the most heavily impacted population segments. From one day to the next, previously a non-issue, medical conditions became contextual disabilities in most situations. Overnight, many groups went from having ready access to grocery stores and pharmacies to limited or no access. Many companies did not have delivery methods, so people had no choice but to walk into physical stores.
Despite 62% of Canadian respondents indicating that they are more aware and cautious about their physical health, not all individuals enjoy the same privilege of looking after their health in the same way, especially when their working conditions do not permit it. Many retailers and grocers have faced the challenge of keeping their customers and workforce safe.
In these sectors, employees have to adopt and communicate different health and safety protocols, change their working schedules, in most cases involving long hours, and work in high-risk environments, causing a lot of distress among the workforce.
Together, these shifts mean businesses need to rethink how they operate and what they offer to foster the kind of inclusive society where more consumers can access what they need when they need it while keeping the employees serving them safe.
Companies that were quick to innovate despite the pandemic have been able to continue serving existing consumers and attract new ones. Having a blend of in-store and digital capabilities or rapidly pivoting to redesign store layouts to accommodate physical distancing, facilitate curbside pickup or even transform certain stores into distribution centers have been common tactics.
Brands going above and beyond are embracing diversity and inclusion as a competitive differentiator, as we envisioned in Part 1, by introducing specialized services for profoundly impacted groups, adopting innovation to “include,” such as seniors-only hours, priority pickup, or contactless pickup for older populations and first responders.
Locally relevant, custom and catered consumer experiences are emerging to fill the void created by global and local travel grinding to a halt by leveraging new partnerships and ecosystems.
High-end restaurants are responding with cook-at-home options, focusing on broader regional distribution by delivery as opposed to traditional à la carte options. Fitness and yoga companies are realigning their business models to changing consumer needs by offering in-home services and virtual personal training.
Brands that embrace diversity and inclusion through collaboration with different stakeholder groups have more access to new ideas and contexts, allowing them to become more innovative.
Purpose as an anchor for long-term value
Some fundamental changes in consumer values have emerged during the pandemic. EY’s Future Consumer Index indicates that 58% of Canadian respondents will reappraise how they spend their time on things they value most. Half (50%) indicated that their values and the way they look at life have changed due to COVID-19. Even 42% reported that they would pay more attention to the social impact of what they purchase.
These values are being reflected in the way customers align with brands and buy products and services. We are seeing consumers favouring local brands (33%) in increasing numbers, placing their trust in brands that offer high quality (38%) and sustainable products (20%).
With COVID-19 being considered the most disruptive force in 2020, it becomes clear that purpose matters more than ever as brands define what they stand for, including how their business practices look after the environment. How companies act now will define their relevance or even their existence in the future as consumers judge with their dollars. As such, our second theme from Part 1, which suggested that Canadian consumers would prefer brands that aligned to their personal beliefs and values remains relevant, is more pronounced as a result of the pandemic.
In Canada we have seen brands respond to align with these expectations. At the start of the pandemic, one Canadian outdoor clothing company that manufactures high-quality apparel for outdoor activities pivoted production to create medical gowns for local frontline workers. They even made gown designs and patterns open source. This innovation was a powerful demonstration of living their purpose – going above and beyond their bottom-line interests to do something that matters to the community. The initiative engaged staff, partners and the community, generating positive coverage and consumer sentiment. The company took the opportunity to develop new collaboration opportunities, build closer partnerships, and design a faster and more responsive operating model.
Another example involves a Canadian fashion shoe designer that celebrated a provincial health officer’s crisis leadership and her iconic “be kind, be calm and be safe” mantra by designing a custom shoe for sale through its new e-commerce-enabled website. All 200 pairs sold out online instantly, generating profits for local food banks.
These are just two stories of local companies that continued to operate by staying true to their purpose. They supported and celebrated their communities in the toughest of times, all while facing significant declines in retail sales. Evidence shows that consumers are taking note.
EY’s Future Consumer Index indicated that 20% of respondents are willing to pay a premium for sustainable goods and services. A further 17% of consumers say they’ll pay a premium for brands that give back to the community.