The Re-Rise of Collectivism
Pathogens and their impact on society
The world has been grappling with Covid-19 and it’s extremely likely that the world, as we know it, will change. If history is any indication, every Black Swan event has affected society and culture at large. Pathogens, especially are known to change human behavior, impact economies and disrupt societies.
Most infectious diseases impact society, culture as well as human behavior. They shape language, the foods consumed, and the structures of society. And these effects continue long after the disease has been eliminated or a vaccine has been developed for the same. An epidemic of measles in Fiji led to the death of 20-25% of the population including all 69 Chieftains across various tribes, creating a vacuum in leadership, which led to the colonial government importing laborers from other nations to work in agriculture. This made them an inter-racial state which went on to develop the culture for the country. Similarly, there was massive displacement of the Irish between 1845 & 1852 with over 1 million migrating to the US to escape the famine caused by Phytophthora infestans destroying potato harvests (Source: Turner RS)
A lot of epidemics have also resulted in violence, scapegoating and mass hysteria associated with the spread of pathogens across history. According to historian Snowden, when cholera struck Paris in 1832, a lot of commoners propagated the rumours of King Louis Phillipe poisoning wells with arsenic. The violence that ensued during this period led to institutionalization of dread of the “deadly class” – the poor people. This violence led to the class-based repression in the 19th century until the 1848 revolution. (Source: Nature)
While increased xenophobia is an outcome of most epidemics, pathogens have an impact on the way languages are shaped. For example, saying “God Bless You” after someone sneezes can be traced back to Greek and Roman history linked to diseases although it is popularly credited to St Gregory the Great. (Source: The Conversation)
If we look at Black Death (The Plague of 1340 – 1400), we realize that it changed Europe’s structure completely.
- The uncertainty of daily survival was making it extremely morbid and made people shift from thinking about the future to “live for the moment.”
- People shifted from grain farming to animal husbandry since it was more economical
- With more people getting into animal husbandry, meat consumption across the continent increased.
- Mass urban migration in order to survive and find jobs led to the death of the agrarian economy in Europe
In something similar, we can feel the effects of Covid-19 globally:
- Uncertainty of wages and economic conditions are pushing us to be more frugal with our money
- Increased vulnerability towards health making us rethink our lifestyle & how we measure our fitness
- Migrants who were working in bigger cities are now trying to head back home, to the safety of smaller towns and villages where the virus has not yet reached
- The defiance of authority is now being socially shamed, and people are not afraid of calling out the ones who blatantly disobeying physical distancing rules
- Increased connectivity with friends and family despite social distancing
Before Corona Virus hit us, one could see the rise of individualism globally. According to the Association for Psychological Science, increasing socioeconomic development is an especially strong predictor of increasing individualistic practices and values in a country over time.
Individualist cultures tend to prioritize independence and uniqueness and tend to think of people as autonomous beings. Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, emphasize inter-dependence, family relationships, and social conformity as identifiers of culture. Globally, people were depending more on their friends than on their families. More and more people were moving to urban and uber-urban locations for a ‘better life’. Almost all countries that were surveyed by the ‘World Values Survey’ showed that everyone emphasized the need for their children to become more independent and to prioritize self-expression. Specifically, statistical models indicated that individualism has increased by about 12% worldwide since 1960.
India’s tryst with Individualism & Collectivism
Let’s take a look at India specifically. As a pre-dominantly collectivist civilization, India was heading towards individualism. And there was a strong reason for it. India has survived on the 4 tenants of Hinduism – Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. For centuries before independence, India was focused on Dharma and Moksha. This was primarily because British denied the pre-independent India of the Artha and Kama. Dharma and Moksha were the only two things that people could own as their expression of self. And both of these kept emphasizing on the values of family and togetherness, thinking about others before self, treating the world as your home –‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’.
If we were to place the timeline of independent India on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we will realize how an Artha-Kama-denied India moved from scarcity to indulgence.
It was only the in the 1960s, 20 years after India got independence, that India experienced Artha for the first time. The socialist industrialization phase of India drove millions to cities for a better job. For the first time, India witnessed nuclear families. People started having a far more stable income (as they were not dependent on agricultural income). For the first time, middle class in India bloomed. They had more financial stability than any other generation ever before.
The liberalization of the economy in the 1990s became a turning point for society. For the first time India starting indulging in their ‘wants’. Middle-class India blossomed with fewer mouths to feed and higher disposable income. Western Culture became aspirational. The identity of self through work started driving decisions. India inched towards an individualistic society while still having some conditioning prevalent from its collectivist times.
However, this will all change. Covid-19 has taught us and has reaffirmed what epidemiologists have been saying for very long – countries and cultures with a more collectivist outlook are less susceptible to epidemics than individualist societies. And evidence of this can be found in the way the virus is spreading across the globe.
As we can see, the more individualistic societies not only have higher number of reported cases but also have the highest number of deaths linked to Covid-19. And this brings us to another very critical point –
WOULD COVID-19 MAKE INDIA A COLLECTIVIST SOCIETY ONCE AGAIN?
And the answer to that is a resounding yes. And the reason to this is simple – collectivist behaviours are hypothesized to generate a societal defense against pathogen transmission.
Source: HOFSTEDE (2001)
According to a report of The Royal Society Publishing, 2008, the authors say, “Given that many specific traditions and norms (such as those pertaining to food preparation) can serve as buffers against pathogen transmission, deviance from the status quo may pose a contagion risk to self and others, whereas conformity helps to maintain the integrity of these ritualized buffers against disease.” We can already see how the society is becoming collectivist. Let’s take the example of India.
- We are dependent upon collective wisdom of our grandmothers, mothers and aunts for building immunity
- We are reaching out to our neighbours, checking in on our friends, exchanging recipes
- We are video calling our relatives with whom we had lost touch with more than ever before
- We are reaching out to family first instead of friends in case we are distressed over health or money
- We’ve become far more sensitive about ordering food from outside or even stepping out to buy groceries if there are old people or very young infants living around us
- We’re stepping out, putting ourselves at risk to feed the animals & birds who have lost access to food that was provided by humans (restaurants feeding cats and dogs, tourists feeding fish and monkeys etc.)
- We’re setting up kitchens or collecting funds to help those who are stranded
- We are not hesitating in reaching out and calling in favours for people we barely know
- We are trying to ensure that the dignity of the lesser-privileged is not lost by ensuring that help reaches them before they need to ask for it
While this is happening at a larger level and is more a response to the lockdown than the virus itself, there are larger things that will lead to the decline in individualism. Take, for example, government surveillance. With contact tracing as a step towards containing the virus, there’s an increase in government surveillance mechanism.
Such mass surveillance is known to alter human behavior. A 2016 study published in the Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly reveals that people repress their opinions and creativity if they believe that the government is watching them. Surveillance enables a culture of self-censorship which leads to the further disenfranchisement of minority groups. Individual opinion and self-expression form the cornerstone for an individualistic community. One censors self-expression by considering the impact of such expression not only on the individual self but also on the community at large. In such cases, people end up thinking about the greater good of the community and steer away from individualism.
But will India revert to collectivism completely? Not really. It has taken a few centuries for India to enjoy artha and kama and we are not ready to let this go any time soon. However, we will become individualistically-collective; where there is a space of individualism to blossom while also thinking about society at large.
The Dawn of New Normal
How will the Indian consumer change post-COVID-19?
- Value-driven consumer – Indians were always known for taking pride in driving a good bargain (cost vs value). With increased financial insecurity, Indian consumers will think twice before buying anything.
- Buying for the ‘greater good’ – Playing to the altruism of the consumers (for example, a part of the money will be donated to the COVID-impacted migrant labors) may not be a bad idea. However, brands need to engage in more than just lip-service and show proof of the CSR initiative.
- Herd Mentality – The Indian consumer is going to buy because others are buying. Indian consumers will rely on social wisdom and take decisions – whether it is about investing in certain instruments or buying a car for self; the decisions will be driven by WOM.
- Frugality is a new hero – Collectivism will make frugality a hero. Each paisa would be spent wisely and those who are frugal in their spending will be the new hero. The emphasis will move away from indulgences to savings; with savings being akin to financial
- The emergence of sub-cultures into the mainstream – With individualism, subcultures always had a separate space. Now, with a semblance of acceptance into the wider culture, subcultures will merge, and Individualistic habits will slowly form a part of the larger collectivistic consensus. Eg: Hip-hop, street culture becoming part of the larger narrative with even the older generation accepting this as a part of self-expression.
What will be the impact of the Re-rise of collectivism on brands?
- Changing drivers of success: Brands have been reflecting aspirational success in their communication – the boardroom, the bigger house, a big car, etc. While leaning towards collectivism, measures of success & aspiration will change. Altruism and the larger good of the society will become aspirational.
- No More REACH based influencers – With more people relying on their family and friends, influencers will change. From Social Media influencers, we will see the rise of the true social influencers. Brands will now have to do away with vanity influencers with a large following and actually start mapping the power of influence of everyone’s social circle while crafting their influencer marketing strategy.
- Brand positioning & communication of ‘indulgent’ products need an overhaul – If the product heightens vanity and extreme individualistic narcissism, the consumers will blatantly reject it. Brands need to reimagine their communication strategy post-lock-down.
- An era of Brand Advocates and Brand Loyalists – Brands will now need to identify and build a relationship with the true brand advocates and brand loyalists. Brands, where there is not a lot of online chatter (example, feminine hygiene products) but a lot of offline chatter, will need to invest in identifying the circle of influence. Would voice assistant data be helpful in identifying these? Or would brands actually have to build an emotional connect and commission new-age research techniques to identify these?
- Brand Loyalty at risk – Brands will find it difficult to find loyalty amongst consumers since more of us would be moving towards collectivism. Individualistic consumers better withstand influences from group members, social/group norms, and marketing media, they tend to stay with their individually best choice without being distracted by external influences. This will be due to the Collective Action Problem wherein even those individuals who want to make the decision for the betterment of the collective group are unable to do so because of the clash of opinions within the group.
- Brands with frequent repurchase cycles like FMCG are at risk of a drop in consumption – When people start thinking of groups before their purchase decision, a lot of FMCG consumption goes down. This used to be seen in India until the early 90s when joint families were a norm. Products like chips & aerated beverages were ‘treats’ and not meant for everyday consumption. One could not simply go out and buy a pack of biscuits for him/herself. It had to come for everyone in the family and hence, the occasions of such purchases were limited. With the re-rise of collectivism, a lot of us will move back to thinking about the family together instead of ordering in a pizza for oneself.
- Upping the game of legitimizing conspicuous consumption – With Indians leaning towards collectivism, brands will find it far more difficult to legitimize conspicuous consumption even in Urban India. The social stigma of over-indulgence while dealing with economic insecurities will ensure that the Have-Nots will detest those who have, making it difficult for even the affluent to indulge. Whether it is a luxury automobile or expensive handbags, watches or shoes, or even own more than one gaming device (not for the hardcore gamers) will be impacted. Brands will need to identify legitimizers and work doubly hard to get people to indulge.
- Rise of all-encompassing consumer products – that cater to individual tastes and needs but also fit Collective needs. More families will want to buy products that have multiple features to satisfy the needs of everyone in the family and not just of the self. Eg. Smart TVs, Refrigerators, Cars, etc.
- Brands need to aim at embedding themselves in the collective memory of the consumers – Collective memories are shared representations of a group’s past based on a common identity. Their formation is affected by cognitive and emotional factors, but it takes place in the context of human interactions with other humans or with cultural artifacts. They are shaped by and transmitted through, narratives. Because they intervene in the definition, maintenance, and mobilization of social identities, they have a strong impact on intergroup relations. Collective memories influence the present, but they are also influenced by present psychological states and needs. Every brand manager must do stocktaking to know the elements and associations that are memorable and influence memory ranking. Many factors play a role in what we remember. Wolfzhowl’s write up on Memory Structures is a good beginning point for brand managers.
- Innovation – With the re-rise of collectivism, brands will need to innovate not only their marketing efforts but the product itself. Larger pack sizes, multi-user friendly products would become the need of the hour.
Brands need to revisit their marketing plans now that COVID-19 is impacting societies.