Editor’s note: Christina Liao is vice president of NPD and innovation at SKIM, an international research firm. Liao is based in Atlanta.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, habitual behaviors have been harshly disrupted, leaving us struggling to adjust, adapt and weigh decisions that were previously unimaginable. As we reluctantly settle into a new normal, social distancing has transformed homes into workplaces, schools, 24/7 foodservice operations and entertainment hubs. During this upheaval, new habits are taking hold.

For many businesses, the very idea of innovation – the great disruptor – has been disrupted. Innovation is forward-looking and growth-minded. It’s where companies bring forth new ideas, new concepts, new features and new benefits. The goal of innovation, now more than ever, is to create emotional resonance through new products and ideas. Innovation must address the here and now, as well as anticipate the post-COVID-19 reality.

What new product ideas or concepts can guide or influence new habits and decision-making after COVID-19 passes? How can you adapt your innovation strategy to thrive in the new normal?

Context and perception

No matter the context (crisis or normalcy), individual decision-making can be understood by examining the role of context and perceptionThese two elements play critical roles in the ultimate decision. Context refers to general market conditions, as well as individual frame of reference and need states. Perception includes the perceived emotional resonance and functional relevance of a given product or idea. Decision refers to trial, usage, purchase, repeat purchase, etc.

The habitual-deliberate decision loop pictured below provides a framework for companies to understand decision behavior and help guide business strategies, such as innovation, accordingly. COVID-19 dramatically changed the context of decision-making. The global crisis triggered a disruption in habits. Many habitual decisions became more deliberate ones.

As you reassess your current innovation strategies, consider how you can use new products or ideas to influence deliberate decisions in your favor. Ask these questions:

  1. Did the disruption permanently change the context of what people feel they need (e.g., emotions around health and well-being) in your industry?
  2. What new product categories may emerge due to changes in perception?
  3. Which features and benefits are more/less valuable as consumers make deliberate decisions following this crisis?

Because forming and disrupting habits takes time, it’s important that companies introduce product ideas that resonate with people now and have the potential to meet what’s nextFor example, disinfection and cleanliness were always consumer needs, but now they are suddenly high priorities – and we can expect that health and well-being will continue to be in the future. 

In response to the current crisis, Delta Airlines introduced “Delta Clean,” a program that institutes a “new standard of cleanliness,” accompanied by a PR campaign that directly addresses consumers’ current heightened state of need, as well as after the crisis has abated. 

“The highest levels of clean should not be reserved for times of crisis – customers deserve to feel confident and safe whenever they decide to travel,” says Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer. “That’s why we are extending our overall safety focus to include our new standard of clean.”

Delta Clean triggers a clear and immediate emotional resonance with customers. But more importantly, it reassures future customers who will fly after the crisis has passed.

Innovation opportunities and recommendations for businesses

The deliberate considerations and actions we see occurring today are fertile ground for the development of new concepts and innovative ideas. Companies can take the lead by influencing behavior through innovation. For example, if a retailer wants to expand its online presence, now is the ideal time to delight customers with new solutions that serve them today and captivate them for the long term.

How do you know whether an innovative idea or new habit has staying power?

1. Determine your place in the decision loop. Consider the products or services you offer, and ask yourself:

  • Given the dramatic change in the context, is there an opportunity to attract customers who habitually purchase from our competitors?
  • Conversely, are our customers at risk of exploring alternative/competitive brands because of this new context?
  • Can we reinforce loyalty by engaging our true-believers in a shared purpose? Can we encourage them to co-create innovation that will carry us both into the future?
  • What new products or services can we create to influence a new habit of choosing our brands among new customers?

2. Conduct quick follow-ups to understand contextualized responses. If you’re introducing new products or ideas during this period, make sure you fully understand how they resonate in this unprecedented context. Why?

  • Following up creates another emotional resonance touchpoint with customers and lets them know you care about their experience.
  • You gain deeper insight into what customers see as the pros and cons of your product/service within their personal context.
  • Perhaps most importantly, it helps you gauge whether a new product or idea has legs after the crisis has passed. Is there potential for longer-term demand? Or do your customers see it as a temporary fix to a temporary need?

3. Finally, try to anticipate permanent changes in context, perception and prioritization of needs. Using insights gained from the first two steps, create a plan to influence customers as they make their journey through the habitual-deliberate decision loop in the future. Winners are born out of every crisis. Consider the household names that launched as startups after the 2008 recession. Companies like WhatsApp, Uber and Venmo disrupted many traditional categories and triggered new consumer habits. 

What are your disruptive innovation opportunities?

Companies that start planning now will be the winners and leaders after this crisis passes. Ask yourself:

  • What can we learn from this period that will accelerate our innovation and fuel consumer adoption of our new ideas?
  • Is there an opportunity to add a new line of products/services to our portfolio?
  • Which product/idea messages resonating today will continue to resonate in the future?

Almost every new product and idea launched in the context of this crisis has a COVID-19 message associated with it. When this period passes, the reference to COVID-19 will no longer be relevant. However, you may discover that some of the emotional resonance or reassurance you offer today will be appropriate in the future. Understanding these triggers will attract more customers to new products faster, as well as gain more brand loyalists and ambassadors.

Ideas and solutions

Innovation itself is experiencing a “new normal” – a dramatically shortened innovation cycle is generating rapid in-the-moment ideas and solutions. Successful companies and brands will capture customer experiences and insights today and leverage them after this crisis passes. More importantly, they will create new products or services that command greater interest among consumers and reach them faster.

Consider today’s pressure-cooker innovation environment an opportunity to guide and influence consumers at every moment in the habitual deliberate loop, whether in times of crisis or relative calm.