In this time of pandemic, brands are being used in new and different contexts. Habits are changing as people lose their typical workplace routines and build new ones, often at home.

Because of shortages and lack of choice, the usual brand names may not be available and alternative brands are being tried.

In this time of change, people’s brand memories and associations are being altered—which means your brand is transforming too.

A brand is a collection of perceptions in a consumer’s mind. These perceptions come from experiences, memories, images, smells, sounds, icons—everything they encounter in interactions with your brand. People’s combined feelings define the true essence of your brand, regardless of what your brand book says.

As people’s experiences of your brand are affected by the new contexts and use situations, their perceptions are changing, in unknown ways. What fresh emotional experiences are associated with your brand? Are they positive or negative?

What is happening to your brand’s mental availability? Is your brand being forgotten? Or is it being even more top of mind?

Only one thing is certain: your brand is changing.

Will we miss the change?

The question is, will you notice it? As researchers we think a lot about biases and heuristics as they pertain to how we collect data. Research techniques designed to elicit System 1 and System 2 thinking all have their places in our research repertoire. But what we tend to give short shrift to is how these same biases and heuristics affect our analyses.

Confirmation biastunnel vision and WYSIATSI (what you see is all there is) are just a few of the biases that can lead us to miss how our brand is changing. We have a strong tendency to pay extra attention to information that confirms our current perceptions, and we tend to miss or misconstrue information that does not conform to what we expect. This is System 1 thinking at work, and System 1 loves making things fast and easy.

While things are changing, it is simple for us to miss the shifts. Our minds will seek out information that confirms what we currently know and filter out that which does not fit our mental picture.

But the picture is transforming, and we don’t quite know what it will look like. That means we need to be especially open-minded and on the lookout for unexpected findings that could become the key to a new understanding.

Expect the unexpected

“If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out, and difficult,” Heraclitus said, circa 500 BC.

The unexpected result and the anomalous finding can help us generate hypotheses that can lead to breakthroughs in understanding changing marketplaces.

Charles Darwin, who first theorised evolution, was always on the lookout for the unexpected. He was constantly searching for something that might cause him to revise his theories. He did this, in part by keeping notebooks and making meticulous notes, logging with special regard things that did not fit in.

Recording these anomalies in his notebooks helped him, because he knew to be on guard against the tendency to forget things that didn’t fit with expectations. Darwin’s son Francis, writing in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, explains, “There was one quality of mind which seemed to be of a special and extreme advantage in leading him to make discoveries. It was the power of never letting exceptions pass unnoticed.”

These exceptions, Darwin found, helped him refine and modify his hypotheses. “I have steadfastly endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it….I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified.”

In order to detect unknown change, you need to adjust the questions you’ve been asking, because they reflect the “old” world and the brand as it was.

You can’t count on a brand tracker to detect change because you may not be asking the right questions. If the nature of the market is being altered, your old usage and attitude study certainly does not reflect it, because it is based on an understanding of the market as it was—not what it is becoming.

Be open. Explore

Now is a time to explore. No one quite knows where things are headed, but the sooner we pick up the scent the more likely we can follow it. If we wait to see how this all shakes out, we’ll have missed the boat and, along with it, any opportunity to pivot and effect change.

Digital qualitative research is ideal for exploration, and we know that people are keen to participate and have their voice heard. But exploration need not only be qualitative. Tools like Brand Emotion uncover people’s nonconscious perceptions, as we saw with this analysis of how people feel about the coronavirus.

We also recently used Implicit Association Testing to explore what people’s real concerns are about COVID-19. That analysis revealed that there were three items that deeply concern people, but not in an explicit way.

A cluster of items: “maintaining public order in society”, “the economy” and “the ability of government to function effectively” suggest an underlying and unspoken fear about the collapse of society. It’s an insight we’ll be following up in our ongoing tracking of public opinion about COVID-19.

Blink and you’ll miss it

The times are changing, and your brand is too. We can’t afford to miss that transformation.

We need to expect the unexpected and pay special attention to that which doesn’t confirm our existing understanding. We need to be open and explore. The time is now.

Andrew Grenville is Chief Research Officer at Maru/Blue.