None of us leave our work at work. And likewise, none of us leave our humanity at home when we work. That’s the tension between being a consumer and being a researcher of consumer industries. Every single one of us is one of the people we research.
So, when I start a piece of research, I always pay attention to my reactions and of those around me. Anecdotal evidence is not data, but it is often a helpful place to start.
My initial reaction to COVID-19 was very much as a human being. Before San Francisco went on lockdown, I was at my niece’s fifth birthday party and she didn’t blow out her own candles. A first for me. As we were saying goodbye to my extended family, we looked at each other and I had a moment — we didn’t know when we’d see each other again.
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Every single one of us is one of the people we research.
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I wondered how I would maintain connections and not feel isolated. And I later paid attention to that feeling as a researcher when I got involved with the consumer work Emma Blackburn is driving — How will COVID-19 change the consumer? I remembered that concern about isolation. It was an initial idea we considered when we began exploring consumer behavior during the pandemic.
Start with humans, not consumers
You don’t start consumer research with the consumer; you start with the human being. So, the first questions are not about what and how they buy. Instead, look at what people are feeling and how they are living.
Every one of us has had this remarkable shock. Suddenly, I am at home every day. I heard someone describe it as not “working from home,” but instead “working while at home” — in the midst of your family, your pets, the distraction of Netflix and the trips to your front door to pick up home deliveries.
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You don’t start consumer research with the consumer; you start with the human being.
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I started thinking about what this very weird period of living would do to my family, my kids — not just today, but for the decade to come. And, thus, our research focuses on that — how beliefs and attitudes are changing and how they will fundamentally change consumption. Today and in the long-term.
The one finding that surprised me
Some of our data aligned with our initial thoughts, but there were also a few finds we didn’t predict. I think the biggest surprise for me (and the most encouraging finding, frankly) was that this crisis seems to be serving as a wake-up call for so many people.
People are under stress, uncertain and very afraid right now; you might naturally expect individuals to default to a very functional and self-protective point of view. But our research found that consumers are even more concerned about others — and the world around them — than they are about themselves. For example, our research found:
- 57% of consumers are shopping in neighborhood stores, and 78% plan to continue this in the future.
- More than half are buying more locally sourced products, and 84% plan to continue this in the future.
- We heard from someone in Michigan who said she was more likely to visit her local restaurants, not just because she felt like they would care for her safety, but also because she felt responsible for them. She said, “These are the places… that need us most.”
- Almost 60% of consumers are making more environmentally friendly, sustainable or ethical purchases, and 89% plan to continue after the crisis. Consumers are voting with their wallets for sustainability — and expect companies to act accordingly.
- 67% of consumers expect companies to ‘build back better’ by investing in longer-term, sustainable and fair solutions.
- 59% said they would avoid brands that are not demonstrating progress against goals that impact our society and planet.
It’s not a new thing, this awareness of all stakeholders and social good. What surprised me is that this awareness didn’t get pushed aside by immediate and selfish concerns. People were saying things like, “I’m even more worried about the health of others. I’m thinking about the community. I’m shopping more in local stores because I need to take care of local businesses. I’m choosing local brands. I’m participating in community events… and contributing to the frontline workers.”
It could have gone either way. People could have been hard-hearted and functional but instead, they’ve reached out to those near them, to strengthen the community. And that has been really hopeful. I’ve learned that a crisis can bring out the worst in humanity, but it can also bring out the best.
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