Consumer insights amidst the COVID-19 crisis

How the smartest researchers are getting insights in these challenging times

COVID-19 will change everything. Last week, Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed entitled, “Our New Historical Divide: B.C. and A.C. — the World Before Corona and the World After”. While we may not agree with all of his predictions, he is absolutely right that there will be a ‘before’, and a dramatically different ‘after’. After September 11, consumers decided to nest at home, spending more time and money on home entertainment than on going out. Studies have shown that during recessions, financial advisors change their marketing messages from “growth” and “capital appreciation” to “trust” and “capital preservation”.

Chief Marketing Officers around the world are begging for answers from their insights departments. They are asking, “How will preferences change?!” and “When we get through this thing, how should we talk to our customers?!” While we won’t answer those questions in this article, we will tell you how the smartest researchers are answering them.

First, what not to do. The quickest way to get made redundant in the layoffs to come is to ask for a big budget increase to conduct a brand new survey. Not only is asking for budget increases in this environment tone deaf, but it’s too slow! You want to develop a survey over the course of a month, field it for two, and then analyze it for another two!? Really – you’re going to tell management that you’ll have an answer for them in October? Good luck.

Some researchers are moving their qual budgets into quant. Since they can’t do focus groups, they’re using that budget towards quick, DIY surveys (or working with nimble MR partners) to get answers in days or weeks. Certainly, this is a better option than being in field for months. However, it has one fundamental flaw: consumer preferences today will be completely different than preferences in three months when we are on the other side of this thing. Right now, consumers are panicking. Sure, consumers are loading up on three dozen rolls of toilet paper and gallons of hand sanitizer this week, but do you think that’s really what they want three months from now when the dust settles?

So, what are the smartest researchers doing? They are using what they have: history. The smartest brands are accessing their historical data to understand how consumer preferences changed during previous crises and economic downturns. In the last few weeks, we’ve been reaching out to our most assiduous researchers and asking what they are doing. We’ve also looked at our usage data and we’ve polled our support staff as to what they are seeing in the field. Here is what we’re seeing:

  • Longitudinal analysis is skyrocketing. In particular, researchers are looking at their data from around 1987, 2000-2002, and 2008-2009 – other financial crises and recessions around the globe.
  • We’re also seeing heavy usage on Chinese datasets from 2002-2003, the time when SARS broke out in China and Hong Kong. And we’re working with customers to try to identify the impact of H1N1 (2009) and MERS (2012).

Why is that? Well, the smartest brands are saying to themselves, “Yes, this pandemic is unique. But there are things it’s ‘kind of like’. So how did consumer preferences change during the dot-com crash, before and after September 11, during the Global Financial Crisis, and during the epidemics of SARS, H1N1, MERS, etc?”. History repeats itself and while there are a lot of things that make the COVID-19 crisis unique, it also bears similarities to many past crises. Before asking for more budget amidst this panic, the smartest researchers are asking themselves, “What do we already know?”

Of course, not all brands have been around for 10+ years and have access to data from 2008 and earlier. But if you are a global brand that has been around for several economic cycles, you should be doing this now. The most common refrains we hear about why people are not are, “I don’t have access to the data from another market like China. It’s not my data” or “We just can’t seem to find the data from 2001” or “We can’t make sense of the data through the Global Financial Crisis. The data doesn’t trend”. That’s often because the sexy and new (eye tracking! VR!) crowds out investment in the basics – well curated data repositories. Before asking for more budget for the new, understand what you already have. It will be quicker (hours, not weeks), cheaper (free!), and more insightful as you are seeing results through a crisis not in the middle of it.

If you don’t have a repository where you can easily access any of your survey data from any market for any year that you’ve done research, now is the time to start one.

Some other things we’re seeing in real time from our smartest customers:

  • They are increasing the frequency of their infield surveys. They are moving their monthly trackers to weeklies or even dailies for the next few months. The world is changing fast, you need to watch and catch the trends.
  • They are reading and filtering on verbatims. What’s the difference in satisfaction between somebody who unprompted mentions coronavirus in their text response and somebody who does not?

There are quick, cheap things that you can do now to get insights for your brand. If you want to be the star of your company through this crisis, don’t go and ask for more budget. Don’t wait for weeks for the answer. Dig into what you have NOW and tell a story of how this crisis may (or may not) look like ones that have already passed. There will be a Before and After Corona, just as there was a Before and After Global Financial Crisis and a Before and After September 11. Help your company connect those dots.

We’d love to exchange notes on best practices that we’re seeing in getting insights in this environment. Get in touch if you’d like to swap ideas.