Gray (rhino) is the new Black (swan)

To make sense of these unprecedented circumstances, many have started to refer to the pandemic as a ‘Black Swan’, a term introduced by economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb to refer to an unpredictable, rare and catastrophic event. Another commonly used – and perhaps even more appropriate – metaphor would be to consider the pandemic as a ‘Gray Rhino’, a term coined by strategist Michele Wucker to describe an event that is coming at us with numerous warning signals but is often ignored. Indeed, scientists have been sounding the alarm bell for decades – backed up by billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates – stating the question is not ‘if’ but rather ‘when’ a global pandemic would come upon us.

How the Gray Rhino fast-tracked consumer behavior

Their worries became reality as COVID-19 hit us. With the strength and speed of an oncoming gray rhino, the pandemic interrupted life as it was, and catapulted our society into the future. Consumer behavior that was changing at a slow but steady pace was suddenly accelerated at an unseen speed. This global acceleration is most visible in the rapid adoption of digital technologies. According to research by McKinsey, in a mere eight weeks, we vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption. With consumers being confined at home, working remotely and craving for social contact, the use of video conferencing and social media platforms boomed. In a period of only five months, the use of Microsoft Teams increased by 894%, while Zoom use grew 677%.

This unprecedented leap forward is not limited to tech companies; it is apparent across all industries, impacting the lives of every single consumer around the globe. In retail, many people turned to online shopping for the first time, resulting in an acceleration of ecommerce adoption by five years. As for mobility, cars are increasingly perceived as a personal, safe and hygienic transportation bubble. As a result, a third of consumers value access to a private vehicle more than they did before the pandemic. Half the consumers even say they are open to extending the use of their private vehicle beyond transportation, into ways to safely connect with the outside world. Think for example about drive-in movie theaters, festivals or concerts.

Ongoing consumer listening to jump on the Gray Rhino’s back

As consumer behavior has shifted and will continue to do so in the future, managers and business owners are challenged to adopt a gray-rhino mindset. Michelle Wucker, author of ’The Gray Rhino’ says:

 “Unlike the black swan that appears only in hindsight, gray rhino theory is forward-looking. It is about actively seeing what’s in front of us and challenging ourselves to act.”

Gray-rhino thinking thus provides the opportunity to act; you can move out of the way, get trampled, or jump on its back and use its force to your benefit. For businesses, responding to a gray rhino starts with identifying and understanding their consumers’ shifting needs and wants. Listening to consumers and keeping a continuous finger on the pulse are vital to survive and thrive in times of crisis.

This is also confirmed by Harvard professor Ranjay Gulati, who states that an outside-in perspective – being extremely focused on the consumer and their needs and wants – makes organizations inherently more flexible in dealing with disruption. He says: “Rallying around customer problems results in the resilience that protects businesses from economic storms.”. This is exactly what Henkel Beauty Care did. As part of their ongoing consumer listening program, they connected with their consumers to understand how the pandemic – and being confined at home – impacted their hair-dying routines. The in-depth feedback then supported them to innovate further in the Root Touch-Up space, enabling women to cover their grays or retouch their color in the comfort of their homes.

So, what’s your brand plan? Are you collaborating with your consumers yet, to jump on the Gray Rhino’s back? Download our latest digital bookzine ‘Better Together: from consumer intelligence to consumer intuition’.

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Tom De Ruyck
Thoughtleader Future of Research
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