How COVID-19 is Impacting Consumer Behavior

Six Months In – How COVID-19 is Impacting Consumer Behavior

Six months.

That’s how long the world has been turned upside down with the coronavirus outbreak. Since mid-March, GlobalWebIndex has surveyed and monitored factors such as consumer attitudes concurrent with the pandemic – in as many as 18 world markets.

GWI, a marketing research SaaS company that provides audience insight to media agencies, marketers, and publishers, has conducted studies on consumer behavior in 5 stages during the pandemic. This report outlines 6 key takeaways for brands from this period.

Worry decreases, but so too does optimism

As the pandemic approaches the half-year mark, concern globally about one’s home country has dropped. Optimism is also down, however, in the 13 countries included in all 5 stages of GWI’s research. Consumers’ concern for their own nation dropped 10 points from March to 61%. Worried citizens remain a higher majority in the U.S. and U.K. (74%). That figure reached the mid-80s in April.

China shows the least worry (45%) and has throughout the pandemic. Some outbreak clusters recently helped that number tick up from 41% in mid-May, but overall, China has remained the most optimistic. Infection spikes in Melbourne had a similar effect for Australia, which rose 5 points to 66% in July. Brazil, where the virus still runs rampant, holds steady at 93% concerned.

Global consumers expect the virus to last in their country. GWI tracked all nations in the group in this metric, watching it balloon from 20% who predicted a lockdown of longer than 6 months to 63% in July.

And although most consumers see success in the future, they’re not as positive as they were early on. In mid-March, 70% felt they’d get through it; in the most recent wave, it was 64%.

This is a great time for brands to evaluate how they approach advertising, says Jonathan Williams, Creative Director at The Brandon Agency.

“It’s a chance to be genuine, to show that we understand,” Williams said. “After all, brands are made up of people who are going through the same things. It is a chance to add a smile to someone’s day, show that we’re part of a greater community, that we’re all in this together.”

Although 40% of everybody supports large indoor venues to open, 40% also are opposed to it. In places the transmission rate has soared, such as Brazil and the U.S., opposition is more than 50%. Also, Germany, Singapore, South Africa, and the UK are more than 50%, but consumers everywhere are uncertain about whether opening these venues is a good idea.

Two events could swing numbers dramatically either way – the second wave of infections or a vaccine developed. Two-thirds of global consumers fear that second wave. Planning a brand campaign in the midst of such instability can be a challenge when consumer behavior can shift at any moment. Consumer research becomes a minute-to-minute endeavor, as so many possible developments could have an enormous economic impact.

The way brands handle the changing times has an effect, too.

In mid-march, FTC, an internet provider in South Carolina and client of The Brandon Agency, took the initiative. They let customers know they had options to pay their bills, and didn’t have to show up in person. FTC took other measures, such as closing a location that relied on other stores for staffing.

“The safety of our employees and customers became a priority,” said Robin Coker, Chief Marketing Officer for FTC. “We didn’t want to create a situation where a virus exposure on Saturday could potentially shut down multiple store locations the following week.”

FTC followed government mandates on store capacity and face coverings. Its stores have been open the entire pandemic, with acrylic shields installed at payment counters.

Tracy Vreeland is Public Relations Specialist at Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned electric and water utility company. Santee Cooper, also a client of The Brandon Agency, anticipated customer concerns beyond the present. They encouraged them to pay bills and conduct business with them online to avoid unnecessary contact paying in person.

“We also warn them of scammers who tell them to pay up right away with a gift card,” Vreeland said. “That’s not something we would do.”

“We understand this is a difficult time for everyone so we want to help our customers as much as we can.”

The economy’s response to prolonged pandemic

In March, 31% of global consumers predicted coronavirus would have a big or dramatic impact on personal finance. Perhaps we felt the worst was behind us: 38% predicted the same in April. Trends were more positive in Europe’s healthier economies with France at 23%, down 2 points, and 19% in the U.K. and Germany.

By wave 5 of the study, In 15 of 18 markets, more than half expect the financial impact on their household finances to not be dramatic. China and Germany are the most positive about the domestic economy.

Seven nations have figures of 90% plus agreement that their national economy will suffer. Although consumers have a bright outlook personally, the sentiment for their countries avoiding a hit is positive but slipping.

Italy (38%) and Spain (40%), nations with striking blows from the pandemic, are more worried about household finances than the average. And although slightly fewer workers are facing furloughs or layoffs (12%, down from 15% in April), more laborers have taken a pay cut, had bonuses or pay raises deferred, or have fewer work hours. As government subsidies drain, some companies are restoring their workforce but must make cuts in other aspects of the business to accommodate them.

Gen Z and Millennials have had the most work impact. Gen Z is more likely to have lost a job, and Millennials’ hit has been in delayed bonuses and raises.

At 16%, Gen Z is the most likely to face furlough as a result of COVID-19. Job loss also affects low-income earners (14%) more than high earners (10%). Their likelihood of being laid off (10%) is twice that of higher earners (5%). It’s been toughest on blue-collar jobs, especially in hospitality, in which work-from-home isn’t often an option.

Travel gets grounded

Consumer spending on luxury items and travel is suffering a slow leak. Those delaying luxury buys have increased to 25%, 10 points higher than in March.

Travel seems to be faring much worse.

Delays for purchasing plane tickets (26% to 33%) and vacation spending (41% to 53%) are on the rise from March to May. Consumer attitudes toward traveling could be turning, however. In July, numbers improved slightly, with 30% of consumers saying they had delayed flights and 50% the same for vacations. Any ray of light is worth optimism for an industry that had little recourse when the lockdown began.

In some cases, those rays of light came through the narrowest of openings.

On March 18, early in the pandemic, The Brandon Agency paused all media for a client, the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, to assess the situation and formulate next steps in a travel industry ground to a halt.

While some hospitality brands sought to rake in as much as they could before the window for travel closed, The Brandon Agency had a different approach: A three-phase relaunch of paid media, in step with Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ plan and CDC guidelines, that met the public where it was.

Advancement to each phase depended on stay-at-home orders instate and from drivable markets in nearby states. The plan called for meticulous movements toward digital and TV advertising, taking into account those government guidelines, with data gathered from an April survey on the public outlook on travel.

April saw a conservative campaign launch in Florida only, including a “Sending love from Daytona Beach” message by email, social media, and online. With virtual activities such as Daytona Beach bingo, kids’ coloring pages, and Zoom backgrounds, Daytona Beach reached out to people cognizant of their current situation: Stuck at home and apprehensive about travel – and the world – overall.

The Brandon Agency made subtle changes to a two-year campaign centered around the tagline: “Wide. Open. Fun.”, in reference to Daytona Beach’s beaches and auto racing roots. By May, the message included thoughts of making up for lost time, “when the time is right.”

In line with consumer sentiment, The Brandon Agency revived the “Wide. Open. Fun.” messaging in August, while imploring travelers in limited markets to plan a quick getaway.

On streaming, internet use, and other needs

Families cooped up at home have boosted their streaming time, predictably. They’re watching the news more often than pre-pandemic, leading the list of lockdown activities. But that’s on the decline, from 67% across all markets to 56% in July. Surplus downtime turned into screen time has taken a toll on consumers, who are turning devices off more frequently.

Americans are watching less news on TV than the global public. More consumers are streaming favorite series on Netflix and the like (46%) than catching up on the daily news (36%).

In another pivot in consumer behavior, they’re catching up on reading, experimenting in the kitchen, and turning up the radio. Although, streaming services remain No. 1: more than half report more streaming time than before COVID-19.

After the outbreak ends, 29% of internet users say they will socialize more as a family, and 24% said they’d watch more videos and shows on streaming services. Cooking and watching more news (23%) rounded out the top 5. Eating in restaurants will be a slow return: 40% of people said they’ll eat out less post-COVID, a number rising in 13 of the 18 markets.

Those activities people turned to when lockdowns began – staying on social media longer, using messaging services and apps, and playing video games – are getting less time. Globally, those who spend time on messaging services dropped 6 points from March to 39% in July.

Then there’s the remote learning challenge for Millennials and Gen Xers whose kids are at home, and who have become teachers and administrators to their studies. Although syllabuses outline expectations, without a teacher present, monitoring progress fell to parents, many of whom juggled that duty with a work-at-home job.

Count Tyler Easterling, President and COO at The Brandon Agency, among them.

“I had to regularly check in on them and make sure they were staying focused,” Easterling said of her kids. “Also, if they had any questions, it was on me and my husband to help them. The kids did have regular check-in calls with their teachers and sometimes that was a challenge with our internet, since we were all trying to be on video calls at the same time.”

Like many parents in this struggle, Easterling has hopes for the new school year.

“There will be more interaction with teachers and not as much need from me and my husband to follow up with them and answer their questions,” she said. “Overall the balance has been good. My children are used to me working from home, but we all have struggled with minimizing distractions and trying to get chunks of uninterrupted time to complete longer projects.”

Bring back the ‘normal’ ads

Throughout the pandemic, brands have highlighted their response in their advertising. Consumers who approve of those ads are still in the majority, but with declining numbers – 77%, down from 82%. Those who are okay with brands resuming non-pandemic messaging have risen to 56% from 51% in March. (It spiked at 56% in May.)

For marketers, it’s important to recognize the subtle shifts, especially for tightening budgets for some brands: consumers are fine if you scale back the coronavirus response messaging.

Knowing what matters to consumers and understanding changes in behavior become paramount in marketing strategy. New Zealand, a model nation for rebounding from the pandemic (despite a recent mini-relapse in mid-August), has seen the approval of normal advertising rise from 35% in March to 54%. The economic impact COVID-19 will have on consumer spending is inevitable, but finding the flow of consumer sentiment can help in marketing the right messages and the right times.

Consumers are ready for promotions, data shows. Approval of promotional advertising has jumped from 75% in March to 84% in July. Consumers are ready to spend – if you give them a deal they can’t refuse. With so much financial uncertainty, it’s also a responsible gesture that emphasizes a brand’s human experience, not just customer experience, now and long-term.

Since April, 80% of consumers approved of brands’ offer of flexible payment options, a number that remains steady.

Eco-consciousness is on consumers’ minds

Pandemic downtime has given consumers a chance to compare shops – not only for prices but also for brands that do good for the environment. In 18 nations polled in wave 5, 72% said sustainability is more important than ever before.

Outliers include Romania (44%) and the U.S. (46%).

Nearly 80% in Gen Z want this. Worldwide, 5% consider the issue less important. It’s not just brands being held accountable. It’s more important for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint (71%), 80% in Gen Z.

Half of the participants said they’ll shop online more when this is over. And almost as many (40%) would like to make work from home permanent.

Context is key in reaching these new-style workers as consumers, says Andy Kovan, VP and Director of Strategy and Research at The Brandon Agency.

“Successful brands are – through research and consumer empathy – positioning themselves to be a resource for their customers,” Kovan said. “This means creating safe environments in which people can shop to a brand showing how to fully utilize and creatively utilize products to get the best results in unique ways. This pandemic has changed the way they behave and live their lives. If brands don’t recognize the impacts here, they may miss an opportunity.”


In addition to guidance for Santee Cooper and the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, The Brandon Agency added a section about COVID-19 on the FTC website for customer updates. The agency also promoted pandemic-related posts on FTC’s social media channels. Job one: communicate changes to business practices and safety measures for technicians’ visits, and customers visiting stores.

TBA’s full service in marketing and public relations stepped up when school closures impacted FTC customers’ families.

“Internet service quickly became a priority for families within our service territory,” Coker said. “So we wanted to make sure and communicate the internet plans that we have available and educate customers on the speeds needed for their home.”

The Brandon Agency and FTC collaborated to adjust messaging for customers regarding an increase in bandwidth needed for eLearning and work-from-home solutions.

Consumer attitudes toward marketing have varied in the 5 waves of research, from March to July. Some changes are subtle; others, more pronounced.

There’s one overriding principle that is crucial for brands, Kovan said: Constant optimization.

“Weekly, daily, multiple times a day, we’re in our clients’ accounts, looking at ways to optimize what we’re doing, how we’re spending money, and how messaging is resonating with the consumers,” Kovan said. “And when we see the need to change, the pandemic has forced us to be nimble in an effort to meet the consumer need.”

Although fluctuations in consumer behavior have occurred nation to nation, and even regionally and locally, awareness of these trends gives marketers a way to meet consumers where they are. The Brandon Agency has helped clients weather the bumps as they encounter them – and set themselves up for success moving forward, using data analytics and creative assets to create the right message at the right time.

How can we help your business? Call us today and we’ll arrange a consultation.

Sources: GlobalWebIndex