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Three Competencies Companies Need Right Now for an Uncertain Post-COVID Future

Kimberly A. Whitler, Ph.D.

Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration

Darden School of Business

University of Virginia


Dr. Whitler’s new book, Positioning for Advantage; Techniques and Strategies to Grow Brand Value, will be available in September 2021.

As we begin to envision a post-Covid-19 world, we are all probably anxious to see how the world changes, or in what ways it doesn’t.

The global, exogenous shock of COVID-19 is not only unprecedented, but the dynamic and fluid nature of how it is impacting consumer beliefs, habits, and practices make it nearly impossible to predict the next normal—despite everybody rushing to do so and our desire to think we can. In reality, we don’t have prior experience to be able to have confidence in any prediction; although many people have conjectured about what will happen, these are just hypotheses.

Why is making an accurate prediction about the post-COVID normal so difficult? Let me just give you one example of how priorities changed which impacted consumption habits. Overnight, people couldn’t travel and were forced to spend nearly all of their time in their homes. The consequence is that the importance of home and family went up. Some people decided that they didn’t want to live in an 800 square foot cramped flat in New York when that same money could buy a beautiful, 2400 square foot house on a lake in a smaller city.

Others, with money saved from the lack of travel, invested those funds into redecorating their house, adding an extension, and so forth. Others didn’t want to live alone and moved closer to family and friends. During the crisis, the forced focus on “the home” led to individuals shifting consumption decisions. But this impacted people differently. And this won’t continue forever as we will resume travel at some point and consumption priorities shift again for some people.


In reality, there are a lot of unknowns. COVID caused supply chain issues which forced brand experimentation. This “forced trial” inevitably will change some consumer habits. For example, I have a relative who has used Charmin toilet paper for more than 30 years. She couldn’t get it during the “white gold panic” and started using Cottonelle. This 30-plus-year loyalist who was forced to experiment has now decided to make the switch to Cottonelle permanent.

In addition, some consumption opportunities have been temporarily eliminated. Entertainment (movies, musicals, theme parks, concerts, etc.), travel, and sports (professional events, NCAA events, etc.) have been closed, or greatly reduced. Consumers have shifted these dollars into other areas, creating new patterns of behavior. What has changed? What will stick and what might go back to pre-COVID behavior? How does this impact specific brands? We don’t completely know.

On top of it, buying habits have shifted. The process by which consumers shop and buy has undergone a seismic shift. Retail had been largely two-dimensional with bricks and mortar and online shopping. Now we have greater usage of hybrid shopping models such as ordering online and picking up curbside. Who were some of the big advertisers during this year’s Superbowl? Uber Eats and Door Dash, two companies with apps that allow you to order from home and have food delivered. Even delivery of medical care has shifted as online consultations became the norm, replacing in-person visits to clinics for routine appointments. Not only consumption habits but channels of delivery have changed with consumers prioritizing different methods.


On top of all of this, while consumer behavior changes have shifted, the anxiety associated with COVID has caused people to question, challenge, and rethink core beliefs, values, and the vision people have for their lives. The behavior changes described above are just a reflection of a shift in some of these deeper, more critical elements. As an example of how this works, some people are moving closer to family, or changing jobs to restructure how they spend their time, or retiring, or going back to school. The distress of COVID impacted each individual differently with varying responses. For me, I had an “aha” moment where I realized I needed to put family above my job. I have spent most of life prioritizing work; this is a hard realization to make. At a macro level, how COVID shapes and shifts society is in flux and ongoing research will be needed to capture how it changes over time. And while companies investigate purchasing habits, they often don’t explore deeper, endemic, human shifts. This is left to academics who, because of the time to conduct more rigorous research, won’t start identifying and publishing more longitudinal trends for some time.

What all of this change means –beliefs/needs/priorities being reconsidered, habits and practices shifting, consumption habits changing, channel of distribution choices shifting – is that to make a prediction about what happens next is largely guesswork.

Given that we can’t really know what will happen next, which companies will thrive post-COVID? This is the key question. Rather than trying to make predictions, it’s interesting to think about which companies will be in the best position to adapt to market changes rapidly. I see companies with three key competencies having a clear advantage.

  1. Firms that have the best real-time market/consumer understanding engines will have an advantage. Companies that have developed multiple sources for understanding consumers, such as integrating first party, second party, and third-party data, will be better equipped to react to consumer behavior shifts in real-time. They will simply be able to generate more, relevant data faster.
  2. Firms that have sophisticated, contemporary, and proven methods for converting insight of consumer patterns and trends into successful business strategies and plans, will have a key advantage. Acquiring the right data (the first bullet point) is important and challenging for many companies. But having data doesn’t produce insight or drive better strategies. That takes analytical and strategic thinking capabilities. And this is where a lot of firms often struggle. They have a lot of data but not a lot of useful, strategy-enhancing insight. Converting data into smarter strategies and plans is critical to activate the potential of data.
  3. Firms that have the ability to adapt quickly to shifting consumer and marketplace needs and competitive actions will be better positioned to win. Speed matters. Getting real-time data and analyzing the data rapidly is important. But those that can effectively respond up and down their supply chains and adjust other resource deployments rapidly will be better positioned to take advantage of the insight and knowledge.

So, it’s the companies who have the intellect to understand and quickly identify how things are changing and then can adapt business processes to take advantage of the knowledge. Having all three competencies – a sophisticated system to “listen and learn” about the consumer and market, an ability to convert data into useful insight, and an enterprise-level ability to act on the insight – is exceptionally difficult. But the only prediction I’ll make is that these are the firms that have the best chance of winning.

“In reality, there are a lot of unknowns. COVID caused supply chain issues which forced brand experimentation.”

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse eu malesuada ipsum. Maecenas arcu turpis, tristique a interdum eget, aliquam vel sapien. Sed quis magna in massa ultrices scelerisque et non lorem. Sed scelerisque felis id nisl consequat, vitae pulvinar ex ornare. Pellentesque maximus scelerisque est, a pretium felis. Curabitur ultrices pharetra mi, sit amet tincidunt urna

In sit amet nunc tempor, lacinia lorem quis, vehicula lectus. Suspendisse sed magna eleifend, lacinia turpis sit amet, rutrum est. Maecenas imperdiet risus felis, vitae viverra augue bibendum in. Quisque molestie nisl eu vehicula fermentum. Cras vitae aliquam nunc. Phasellus pellentesque aliquam egestas. Fusce finibus leo ac lorem auctor malesuada. Etiam tristique enim suscipit arcu tristique, ut consequat justo porttitor.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse eu malesuada ipsum. Maecenas arcu turpis, tristique a interdum eget, aliquam vel sapien. Sed quis magna in massa ultrices scelerisque et non lorem. Sed scelerisque felis id nisl consequat, vitae pulvinar ex ornare. Pellentesque maximus scelerisque est, a pretium felis. Curabitur ultrices pharetra mi, sit amet tincidunt urna rutrum quis. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Aliquam lacinia lorem nibh, quis rutrum risus tempor in. Phasellus eget augue at neque feugiat malesuada sit amet id justo. Nulla facilisi. Donec tincidunt augue eu dolor aliquam, ac interdum ante placerat. Integer porta nisi sit amet lorem pretium, sit amet accumsan dolor lobortis.

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