In March 2021, we sat down with Rory Sutherland, customer behaviour guru and Vice-Chair of Ogilvy to discuss the key lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic. How customer behaviour has changed?

We spoke about how companies need to change their approach to meet their customers to grow and thrive in the long-term, even if it seems inefficient in the short-term.

Here’s five of the most insightful takeaways from the discussion.

Rory Sutherland and Ben Rickard discussing CRM lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic in a webinar.

Table of contents:

Lesson 1: Consider behavioural implications

You can have all the statistics to prove your decision, but you should consider the behavioural implications of how people react to the facts you share.

If you start a lockdown tomorrow could some take it as a last chance to meet friends and family, making a trip they would have otherwise not taken? Likewise, if you stop a lockdown, will they cautiously return to high streets with social distancing, or will they have a house party?

On only meeting outdoors:

You’ve got seven people all meeting in a garden. It starts to get a bit cold. The patio heater runs out of gas. The next thing you know they’ve moved to the conservatory, three people have asked to use the loo, and… there’s five people arguing about Brexit in the kitchen.

So someone may say ‘let people meet outdoors, at pubs or in their gardens’. Everything has a behavioural consequence. Outdoor socialising tends to lead to indoor socialising.

Rory Sutherland
A garden party, showing six women meeting outdoors.

People react to new information differently. Their reaction may vary depending on how the rest of their social group behaves. You should consider that blanket messaging to all of your customers could be interpreted in different ways.

Lesson 2: People react differently

Some people may have pent-up energy from lockdown and overcompensate when the restrictions are lifted. They may go to the gym, raves and more than they used to. Others will have developed a more cautious approach to crowds, and that feeling won’t go away overnight.

Different facial expressions, representing people reacting differently.

This could spill into shopping habits. Consider if your customers are more likely to look online for their products before popping into town. Where are they going to be inspired? Are there some habits they may have picked up in lockdown such as buying in bulk less often? Or are they going to overcompensate when restrictions lift and shift back to their previous habits in a big way? Perhaps your audience is split both ways and you need to consider multiple customer behaviours.

Lesson 3: Don’t rely on trends

Using your historical data to make decisions now and in the future may obscue yourself to the changes happening in the present or immediate future.

There’s four types of purchase, as according to Harvard Business Review:

  1. Essential (regular and necessary, like food)
  2. Treats (regular, as life’s miserable without)
  3. Postpone-able (occasional but necessary, like cars)
  4. Unnecessary (occasional, like cruises)
An empty road, when car purchases have been postponed.

These, however, can be misleading. Even short-term trends aren’t particularly useful in a global event like the Covid-19 pandemic. Consider car purchases. Consumers may have delayed their purchases until lockdown ended, and what was once postpone-able could become essential. Don’t extrapolate the delays for ongoing trends.

Lesson 4: Study bees

Bees are fascinating creatures. Like ants, they’re extremely well organised.

Bees have developed the ‘waggle dance’, which tells others which direction the source of pollen is. The amount of time they waggle tells the others how far to go. It’s fascinating to watch, but also extremely efficient. The other bees know exactly where to go for a good source of pollen.

However, around 20% of bee journeys ignore the waggle dance. It turns out these ‘random’ journeys are actually exploring for new sources of pollen. While they may not always find something, it’s this exploratory behaviour that keeps the colony safe and growing. Were anything to happen to the current pollen source (e.g. if it runs out or it were eaten by cows), they now have alternatives.

A hive of bees, where the waggle dance takes place.

If bees were humans, the waggle dance bees would get frustrated with the non-compliant exploratory bees. ‘Look at me. Every time I go out I get nectar and pollen, and your last three journeys you’ve brought back nothing.’

Rory Sutherland

There’s no ‘bee compliance officers’. In the short term, the 20% are inefficient. But in the long term, they aid the long-term survival of the colony, and help it to grow and thrive.

If all you do is optimise what you already know, without exploring what you don’t know about the future, your company can’t grow or have any lucky accidents.

Lesson 5: Inform the wider organisation

In Customer Relationship Management, your team can easily become siloed. You justify your work and actions by the money you bring into the company. That’s totally understandable, but it’s not the best use of your efforts.

An empty office, representing your wider company.

Imagining yourself more as the exploratory bee, you can step back and see the bigger picture of how your work can help the company as a whole grow. That way, you’ll be less concerned with proving your own output, and you enter the business of happy accidents.

Don’t do direct marketing to make money; do it to learn.

Rory Sutherland

Experimentation is extremely valuable, but only when you share what you learn outside of your team. Use your findings to inform and make decisions elsewhere in your organisation. That way, everyone wins.


Everything has certainly changed since Covid-19 hit. Your customers’ behaviour has changed, and understanding their individual needs is more important than ever. Keep this in mind in your marketing endeavours, and know that one message won’t work for every customer anymore.

At Audiens, we make it easy to understand your Shopify customers. Get customer insights, segment by behaviours and target using social ads and email.