Clumsy Humans: meet the newly awkward post-pandemic consumer
A view from Tess Lowery and Laura Casado Cisa

Clumsy Humans: meet the newly awkward post-pandemic consumer

While some have predicted a new Roaring 20s, the post-lockdown consumer is more likely to be cringing and full of unease

Pints are being pulled, overgrown locks are being cut, Primarks are being stormed and the sound of contactless payments is ringing in the shops. This month, non-essential retail reopened its doors and pubs welcomed people back to their outdoor spaces in England after what has felt like a very long wait. For Scotland, Wales and Ireland, that date is just around the corner. 

As the UK continues to unlock, it’s time for brands to start thinking about what kind of consumer is going to emerge from the darkness. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re all convulsing with excitement at the thought of going back to normal. Headlines everywhere predict the pendulum will swing from hermitude to Roaring 20s with a concomitant surge in sexual licentiousness and people seeking out extensive social interaction. 

However, it’s not just that the observation that we’re all desperate to get back out there is too obvious and that such a general insight will no doubt lead to a round of ads that all look and sound the same (remember the pervasive empty streets of March last year?). It’s that the picture just isn't so clear cut. 

In fact, our research tells a different story. 

Enter the Clumsy Human: a lockdown-affected consumer that over half the country will morph into (to varying degrees) over the coming months, full of general awkwardness, cringe and unease. 

In the study, we found that 58% of us are feeling awkward at the idea of “going back to normal” with projected awkwardness levels ranging from the light-hearted (31% of responses) – “I’ve got so good at flirting but by the time lockdown is over I will have forgotten how to have sex” – to the apprehensive (51% of responses) – “Will I have trouble stringing sentences together?” – to the downright existential (18% of responses) – “Lockdown has made me turn into a dowdy middle-aged woman.”

Women are 13% and young people are 27% more likely to definitely agree that resuming some kind of normal life will feel strange. Good news for the chronically awkward: you’re going to be in good company.

Diving deeper into the Clumsy Human demographic, we identified three types, ranging from the least to the most open to change: 

Cautiously optimistic (35% of the sample)

These folk feel simultaneously relieved and anxious – more often than not positive feelings coalesce with negative feelings (56%/44%). People in this cohort are 39% more likely to be under 40 and 29% more likely to be lower income. Women slightly over-index here.

Fearing the future (33%)

This group deeply fears the road ahead. Ninety-six per cent describe themselves as “anxious” and 77% are “concerned”. Fifty-four per cent feel stressed and 36% are confused. This cohort is the most balanced when it comes to socio-demographics.

Raring to go (32%)

These Clumsies feel relieved and positive about the imminent end of Covid restrictions, describing themselves as “excited” and “overjoyed”. People in this cohort are 47% more likely to be male and 32% more likely to be 60+.

While we expect many brands to create orgiastic depictions of a post-pandemic utopia, marketing to the Clumsy Human will give brands an edge. 

Different groups will require different marketing strategies but we see three options. 

Eliminate the pain 

There will be a lot of pressure to get back out there, with some Clumsy Humans going into overdrive. But experts warn that this sudden change of pace could lead to quick burnout. So why not encourage baby steps? Alternatively, you could help them over-prepare, such as by eliminating cancellation fees. We’re all readjusting to a new tempo so account for some serious brain fog and remember that patience is a virtue. Or act as a brand saviour – Heineken’s pop-ups, for instance, are offering pints and haircuts for those who couldn’t book a spot in the beer gardens (pictured above).

Welcome the weird

We all picked up a few questionable hobbies, habits and obsessions over lockdown and stopped others (like wearing bras and showering) altogether. Make your brand a safe haven for the Clumsy Human and their new eccentricities where they will have no fear of judgment. Celebrate fails or use cringe as an opportunity for some meaningful conversations, as mental health project “Seize the Awkward” did.

Work around awkward

With so much pressure to go full throttle, there’s room to respond when things end up feeling a little anticlimactic. Brands brave enough to say so will stand out. You could even play a part in responding to the inevitable anguish and anxiety that comes with reemergence. Headspace, for example, partnered Hinge to ease dating anxiety with pre-date meditations. Finally, with the exhaustion inevitable, what about creating some space for down time? Think nap pods and quiet areas.

How frequently the Clumsy put themselves back out into the world will define how long they spend in this state. While the raring-to-go types may rid themselves of any residual awkwardness purely from immersion therapy, those fearing the future will spend longer in the clumsiness. Although our captivity may not have been as severe, we know from research undertaken on prisoners, astronauts and quarantined individuals that atrophied social skills and stress symptoms can endure for years after the event. So the effects of Covid-19 – clumsy and otherwise – may well be with us for longer than you’d expect. 

So whether it’s thinking about how your brand can reach people at moments of peak awkwardness during their first baby steps back into the wilderness or celebrating the inevitable epic clumsy fails they’ll make, if you lean into the cringe you’ll be likely to resonate with consumers during this once-in-a-lifetime limbo. It’s a whole new (awkward) world. 

Tess Lowery and Laura Casado Cisa are strategists at BBH London.