A second ‘Roaring Twenties’ complete with ‘sexual licentiousness’ and ‘reverse religiosity’ is likely after the pandemic crisis passes following month after month of suspended social interaction, social epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis, a Professor at Yale, colourfully predicts.

Brand owners are best advised to be more cautious, however. Analysis of social conversations between November 2020 and January 2021 reveals stoical optimism, modest desire for pleasant surprises and responsibility as prevailing consumer sentiments.

Since March 2020, We Are Social has been monitoring social media sentiment about the COVID-19 pandemic across 14 markets, including: the UK, France and Germany; the US; Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Using in-depth social listening, we hoped to better understand consumers’ emotional state about the present as well as their hopes and plans for the future.

And for brand owners, the latest quarter – covering the period from November 2020 to January 2021 – contains a number of surprising and actionable insights.

For a start, talk of ‘never getting back to normal’ fell 77% between July and October last year and, since then, has remained low. This demonstrates the ‘slowly but surely’ mindset that now prevails, with raised hopes that life will return to normal balanced by acceptance that this will take longer than many might like.

By January, conversations about coronavirus were trending markedly downwards and only 1.4% of chats studied referred to ‘life after lockdown’. Meanwhile, social conversation about vaccines was up 12% over the same period.

Overall, the consensus was that though things are improving, 2021 will be ‘a difficult year’.

Second, a sense of relief was evident in social conversation as the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered and people began sharing stories of loved ones being vaccinated and, in some cases, plans – such as travel plans – for when restrictions ease.

Frustration was also evident, however, with a significant proportion of chat across many markets in the quarter criticising the behaviour of people – influencers, especially – acting as if the pandemic is over.

There was concern, too, about the spread of misinformation – about vaccines, especially – and the negative effect this is having on trust, in particular regarding lower than average uptake of the vaccine in the UK among certain ethnic and religious groups.

Trust is another current issue of concern.

According to our analysis of the social chat, scepticism concerning the pace of vaccine roll-out was evident, as were doubts about the numbers of those vaccinated and the efficacy of extending the gap between jabs recommended by vaccine manufacturers.

In many markets, for example, there were conversations about President Trump’s poor COVID-19 strategy for the US compared with New Zealand’s achievements. In continental Europe, there was frustration about national roll-outs compared with the rate of the UK’s achievements. And in the UK, there was confusion about whether vaccine roll-out data related to the first dose or both. Who and what to believe were recurring and widespread themes.

Finally, our evidence suggests consumers’ desire to treat themselves – both as a reward and, also, to break the monotony – not in a ‘Roaring Twenties’ kind of way, as predicted by Dr Christakis, however, but in a way that is responsibly indulgent.

This underlines other research already out there – such as from Canvas 8, which revealed that 15% of Gen Z and Gen Y Britons have bought more luxury items during the pandemic. In America, meanwhile, people are finding smaller, affordable ways to indulge – meaningful (as opposed to luxury) jewellery, for example, or pet fashion.

In the light of all this, we recommend that brands should consider the following responses:

1. Don’t centre communications around COVID-19

Consumers are tired – of the restrictions on their lives caused by COVID-19, of the uncertainty of when normality will return (and what that normal will look like), and brand communications that attempt to reassure with messages like ‘We are here for you’ and ‘All in it together’.

COVID-19 remains an important – if not, critical – topic, but the message is clear: consumers on social media are talking about it less.

2. Don’t bang on about the imminent ‘return of normal’

The social chat is loud and clear: the world’s current predicament is anything but short-term, and brands should also factor this into their thinking.

Whether consumers will snap back to old expectations and behaviours once the pandemic crisis has passed remains a topic of conversation for some. For others, focus is on which new expectations and behaviours prompted by the pandemic are a temporary shift, and which will stay.

More important than either for brands now, however, is to respond to consumers’ normal-for-now attitude to COVID-19 and its related restrictions (for however long ‘now’ lasts). And they should remember that, though an end is in sight, for consumers it feels a long way away.

3. Do accentuate the do-able …

Consumers tired of lockdown restrictions and craving old freedoms want to hear about what they can do under current circumstances, not what they still can’t.

Opportunity for brands lie in offering consumers entertaining and engaging content that provides a break from lockdown monotony and, also, in providing pleasant surprises that reward. This includes things that are novel, as with more free time to fill, many people in lockdown are more open than they were before to trying new things.

4. … but accentuate the do-able responsibly

Responsibility is key – as underlined by the recent backlash against influencers jetting off to Dubai to ‘do lockdown’.

The clear majority of consumers want to be as sociable as they can be, but only within current restrictions. This creates opportunities for brands to position themselves as a responsible enabler, and to then innovate around that accordingly.

Brands should proceed with caution, however.

Vaccination roll-out paves the way for an eventual release of pent-up demand for spending, especially on travel, where global consumer spend fell by more than 50% in 2020, according to our Digital 2021 report.

But with vaccination roll-out plans in most countries involving the most vulnerable – including older age groups – to be prioritised ahead of younger age groups, selling yourself on freedoms before everyone can have them also risks backlash.

Ryanair’s ‘Jab and go’ ad, which was first condemned as irresponsible then withdrawn after being criticised for misleading claims by UK advertising watchdog the ASA, is a case in point.

5. Do keep reading the room, emotionally

Consumer sentiment is fragile, and emotions are intense.

Yes, many people are now starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, but that light still feels – and is – a long way off. Though protection in markets where vaccine roll-out is most advanced feels closer, high numbers of people still falling seriously ill and dying. This, combined with the emergence of new variants, can make the ongoing situation feel all the more upsetting.

Brands cannot and should not assume that people are yet ready to celebrate – or, indeed, ever will be.