What if your customers simply forgot they were previously loyal to your brand? What if they stopped purchasing your entire category? What if they had done so already? And what if, this was the competitive opportunity of a generation?

There’s a commonly quoted figure, backed by solid research, that it takes 66 days to form a new habit or change behaviour. It’s a favourite figure for self-help publications where it offers a concrete goal for those looking to improve themselves, their activity, or their business. What’s less commonly covered is that the reverse logic holds just as true. 

Just as 66 days of reinforcement is enough to create a new habit, 66 days of atrophied or neglected behaviour is enough to end an existing one. Which, with prolonged lockdowns reaching and exceeding 66 days in countries all around the world, means we are now dealing with a phenomenon not seen in our lifetime – collective consumption amnesia. Simply put, brands that have invested so much intellectual and financial capital building their identities, boosting their saliency, and hardwiring purchase and consumption habits, could have to start it all again, from scratch.

There’s more to this than just that slightly random-sounding 66-day figure. There are also profound shifts, that have been taking place all around us, but which, with a pandemic to process, we have probably not been conscious of.

Let's remind ourselves for a minute of Daniel Kahneman’s description of System 1 and System 2 thinking. With the tens of thousands of micro and macro decisions that form normal daily life, our brains have evolved not only to not sweat the small stuff but to short-cut it out altogether, by making those decisions on a highly sophisticated autopilot. That's System 1 thinking. System 2 is reserved for those things that require engagement, calculation, interpretation. They can work together of course. If you’re asked what ‘5 x 2’ is, your System 1 answers for you. If you’re asked for ‘44 x 71’, then System 1 calls on help from System 2 to start calculating.

When your daily routine runs its normal course System 1 largely calls the shots and leaves System 2 in peace. Which has worked just great ever since the first humans tried to make it through the day. Because if we tried to use System 2 thinking to make sense of every aspect and every choice in life, our little heads would explode.

But there’s a little post-pandemic glitch in the system for the marketing industry. Our decades-long branding efforts – all those brand associations, those subtle nudges, and carefully nurtured habits – they are all about getting consumers to let System 1 do the thinking and the consuming. So, we reach for a can of Coke at about the same time every day. We accept the automatic renewal of that gym membership. We use the same travel site to book another trip on impulse. Or rather, we did.

Consumption amnesia doesn't mean all potential consumers have literally forgotten every brand name and are blundering around trying to figure out whether they were aliens from Mars prior to the memory lapse. At least hopefully. 

But it does mean that the System 1 autopilot that drove purchase has had over 66 days to melt away. The neural pathways behind the autopilot are gone, leaving blanks or whole new options in their place. Going to the gym, visiting a regular website, even walking down a certain aisle in a shop; these habits are no longer habitual. More significantly System 2 may be yanked into life to consider whether they are even desirable and that could entail the obliteration of all the work put into generating a System 1 response. 

The customers may never book another short-break flight. I may never reach for a Coke at that moment in the afternoon again.

So is it time to scale the belfry and haul desperately on the bell ropes? To wake the marketers who are complacently awaiting the return to normal and the comfort of business as usual? From my perspective as a strategist, the situation is (as so often) more nuanced than that. It could even be the outstanding opportunity of a generation to redraw the battle lines of brand growth. New habits mean new opportunities in so many sectors. The chance to leap in right now should have every strategist and brand leader on the edge of their seat.

There are caveats, of course. The winners will be those who ensure their businesses, customer experience and messages are tailored to the post-pandemic demands of consumers' instinctive System 1 triggers, and a new wave of System 2 values priorities. And we all need a plan for that, because consumption amnesia could just be the brave new world for brand growth.

Read the full report Fit for growth beyond COVID-19 here.