Understanding Consumer Health During COVID-19

May 20, 2020

COVID-19 has thrown our daily life into chaos. Rapid change wrought by the health crisis has suddenly created new consumer behaviors and habits. As people stay home and make more purchases online, and even as states lift restrictions and consumers venture out to restaurants and businesses again, it’s critical for brands and marketers to understand how consumer mindsets have evolved during the crisis.  

On March 19, the GutCheck team began conducting regular online surveys of 18-64 year-olds across the United States to understand changes in national consumer mindsets and determine the best ways to reach audiences during this unpredictable time. Through these surveys, we were able to track critical issues, two of which – health/healthcare and the economy – weight quite heavily in consumers’ minds.

The percentage of respondents who thought health/healthcare mattered the most didn’t fluctuate drastically throughout the six-week period, remaining comfortably in the 43-48 percent range. However, between weeks three and five there was a six-point swing in concern for the economy, jumping from 31 percent of respondents who thought it mattered the most to 37 percent, bringing it closer to the concern for health and healthcare. However, by the sixth wave (when we began shifted cadences from weekly to bi-weekly) of our research that number increased to 41 percent, overcoming concern for healthcare (39 percent) for the first time since the surveys began.

This COVID-19 pandemic has shown that there isn’t necessarily a clear delineation between healthcare and the economy. In many ways, they’re bound together. Consumer health involves physical and mental well-being, to be sure, but it involves financial stability as well.

Awareness of these perceptions can help you understand how to communicate and tailor messaging that resonates with your consumer base as the pandemic continues. Read on for a closer look at some of our findings.

Consumers’ mental health has taken a hit but also opened new doors

As the pandemic has progressed, consumers have faced significant lifestyle changes and new stressors. The number of consumers who considered themselves to be in good physical health at the start of the surveys changed slightly over time, from 51 percent during week one to 48 percent in week five. The number of consumers who considered themselves to be in poor health decreased in week three to 15 percent, but then jumped back up to 19 percent in week four.

But while perceptions of physical health for the most part stayed steady, consumers’ mental health has notably declined over time as they grapple with major changes in work, schooling, home life, and more. Forty-nine percent of consumers felt they were in good mental health at the start of our surveys, but later on that number slid to 38 percent. By the sixth research wave, more women (38 percent) than men (24 percent) rated their mental health as either fair or poor, and more women (49 percent) than men (31 percent) said they felt stressed often. As one 32-year-old respondent noted, “The kids being home has caused a serious hit to my mental health.”

We noted that a feeling of lack of control was another factor contributing to declining mental health. Around a quarter of respondents throughout weeks one through five felt they were unable to control important things in their lives, as confirmed by one 28-year-old respondent who said, “I just feel as though I can’t control things, and they cause my mind to race and it causes anxiety.” In the sixth wave, women were feeling the effects of that lack of control more so than men, at 30 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

As a result, consumers have created some personal goals and coping mechanisms – like focusing on self-care – that they expect to continue using as the weeks roll on. While 66 percent of consumers found it important to stay informed on COVID-19, 64 percent also tried to foster a positive outlook. Finding ways to stay fit and healthy (61 percent) and maintain their mental health (56 percent) have been a part of consumer self-care routines. Some respondents specifically noted playing music and exercising indoors helped make a positive difference.  

The serious tone and content of news reports has also been a stressor, so they’ve chosen to move away from social media and toward more positive content. Usage of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as sources of health and financial news all fell over the weeks. One 59-year-old respondent explained: “With so much hype and news coverage (which doesn’t seem to be 100% fact-based) it can be easy to overthink things or worry about non-existent issues. There seems to be a lot of fear-mongering going on in the news and social media.”

Consumers are concerned about personal and national financial health

The financial health of consumers has changed as well. On a personal level, consumers found it’s important to be able to pay for what’s necessary while cutting back on what isn’t. At week five, nearly six in 10 respondents prioritized making sure they would have enough food and household goods in the weeks to come, while 58 percent focused on paying bills and 42 percent took action to reduce non-essential expenses. “I have not been able to shop in-store or dine at a restaurant. I have severely reduced my spending on non-essential items,” noted one 49-year-old respondent.

But even more than their own financial health, consumers are worried about the nation’s financial health – both in the midst of the crisis and over the next five years. Fifty-six percent worried about periods of widespread unemployment or economic depression in week one. By the fifth week, that number moved up to 62 percent, then dropped a bit in the sixth wave to 59 percent. In the first week, far fewer respondents (23 percent) thought the economy would do fine over the next five years, and that number slipped to 20 percent by week five.

Another measure of financial health—the Index of Consumer Sentiment (ICS)—also declined between waves one through six. The ICS measures consumer confidence, or people’s perceptions of current economic conditions and expectations about the future. The ICS score among respondents started at 68.9 in week one, dropped to 64.3 in week five, and increased slightly to 65.8 in the sixth wave of our research.

Again, there were differences in the way women and men perceived financial health. More women (66 percent) than men (58 percent) believed that as a country we’ll have financial hardship in the next year. On the other hand, more men (37 percent) than women (29 percent) felt themselves and their families would be better off financially in the next year.

How you can talk to your consumers today

These are not normal times. But the pandemic has shown that consumers have been able to adapt to the rapid changes and create “new normals” for themselves. These adaptations offer new opportunities for you to find and speak to your customers in meaningful ways that both acknowledge the circumstances they’re in and emotionally resonate with them.

Helping to further make that case is that many respondents in the surveys understand there’s a role for business to play. One-third of respondents said it’s the responsibility of businesses and business leaders to help solve the COVID-19 crisis. Consumers are looking for empathy, leadership, and solutions from brands, and the right messaging can help meet those needs and expectations.

Here are some potentially effective ways you can communicate with your consumers:

  • Since many consumers feel a lack of control, acknowledge this pain point and express an understanding of it.
  • Though consumers want to be informed about COVID-19, they’re also trying to stay positive. Providing fun, lighthearted, and positive content is a way to connect with your consumers and give them what they’re seeking.
  • With consumers reining in non-essential spending, there may be an opportunity to emphasize higher-quality products with longer lifecycles to help make their money go further.
  • To boost consumer confidence, messages that appeal to healthier mental states could be effective as this period of uncertainty continues.

Stay tuned for our next blog, where we’ll take a deep dive into findings around the actual day-to-day changes of consumers during the pandemic and address how brands can effectively respond. In the meantime, our consumer surveys will continue and reveal even more actionable audience insights in the weeks to come. Click here to subscribe and receive those in your inbox as soon as they’re available.

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