Client Story


Providing organisations with insights on consumer responses to COVID-19

Around the world, COVID-19 has transformed society on so many levels, forcing consumers to respond to social, political, economic, professional and personal changes in real-time. Organisations must rapidly address evolving consumer behaviours but may not know where to start. Our human insights team at Sparkler, part of PA, saw an opportunity to quickly launch a research project, Lockdown Unlocked, to explore these changes in the UK. We mined consumer insights to provide weekly communiqués, twice-monthly industry-facing webinars, and sector-specific reports and infographics. To date, this research has provided insights into over 10 industry verticals and horizontal topics, helping brands evolve products and services to meet emerging consumer needs.

Key successes

  • Launched a national COVID-19 consumer insight study in the UK in March 2020
  • Amassed rich quantitative data and qualitative insights into consumer thinking
  • Provided industry expertise to enable brands to respond to the pace of change in consumer behaviour at a critical time

Transforming in a volatile context

COVID-19 has created huge uncertainty for consumers and the brands that serve them. Consumers have become incredibly flexible and resilient. They’ve needed to adjust their lives, habits and goals to meet new requirements, such as abiding by lockdowns, and tiered restrictions, using masks in public, addressing job and business changes, finding ways to secure finances, home-schooling children and safeguarding family and friends.

Our consumer insight team initiated a year-long research programme, from March 2020 until March 2021. At the onset of the pandemic, it was clear that COVID-19 would significantly impact global economies and consumer spending and for some time to come. So, the team worked at pace to launch the research programme within a week.

“The COVID-19 crisis is universally borne, but individually experienced. For all of us who are consumer-led professionals, the pandemic requires of us to listen anew to consumers and learn about their current hopes, fears, frustrations and solutions.” says John Robson, strategy and consumer insight expert, Sparkler.

Undertaking a longitudinal, multifaceted study

Our team included experts in survey and sample design, data analysis, report creation and factor analysis. We designed and executed the research in real-time, working with research partners 3Gem to recruit a 1000-person sample across each topic for ongoing surveys. We also engaged 40 participants in an online community and for in-depth interviews on Recollective’s tailor-made online platform. We closely followed those same 40 people throughout the project, observing their journeys in lockdown. Both groups were carefully chosen to mirror the diversity of UK residents.

The team rapidly developed a rhythm for the project. We identified key themes for the research, including the difference in participants’ attitudes and experiences, their focus on increasing personal control amidst an inherently uncontrollable situation, and current and future purchase intentions.

We gathered insights quickly, sharing them via weekly communiqués and through our twice-monthly industry-facing webinars, giving brands valuable new insight into consumer thinking. In addition, PA industry experts helped unpack survey findings. Working closely with the Sparkler team, PA experts in financial services, transport and consumer and manufacturing, built on the findings and shaped content, so it was relevant and digestible for a range of brands.

“Qualitative research provides a real richness to consumer thinking that the quantitative data alone can’t provide,” says Jonny Stuffins, human insights expert, who conducts in-depth interviews with consumers. “Our clients tell us they value the incisive insight that these real-life observations and stories can provide.”

Developing new solutions to navigate the pandemic

To allow researchers to evaluate consumer perspectives quickly and visually week after week, the team developed of a simple quadrant-style segmentation framework, named “Willing & Able”.

“Brands and consumers are looking for new solutions to navigate the pandemic and beyond. The ‘Willing & Able’ framework provides both an immediate reference point and data that tracks over time, helping brands understand consumer confidence and spending power for today and in the future,” says Jamie Simpson, human insights expert, who heads the quantitative research.

Applying the research findings

We uncovered a detailed and future-facing picture of the potential challenges and opportunities for B2C organisations and teams. We’ve seen how different the nation’s experiences of the pandemic have been. As COVID-19 affects us all, it can be easy to assume it has a universal impact on everyone, but our study shows that’s not true.

There are key differences in how certain groups have reacted to the pandemic, for example we’ve seen how those younger (aged 18-34) have often struggled more with mental health and worries over the future, whereas those older (55+) have often managed to find more positivity day-to-day, but have greater immediate fears over their physical health.

Technology has grown in importance to consumers since this start of the pandemic. We found that half the nation is using screens and digital devices for a broader set of things than they did before lockdown and that parents have become more accepting of how much time their children spend on screens and devices.

We also found that around half the nation are looking to invest more money into their technology set ups in their homes and that this reliance on technology going forward is likely to remain high, with 51 per cent agreeing that technology will play a big role in helping us get back to normal.

But with this, comes concerns – nearly a third of respondents said they have more worries around the privacy and security of their online data since lockdown and 72 per cent feel it’s more important than ever that the websites and apps they’re using are trustworthy.

Widespread uncertainty and fears over futures have upweighted the consumer need for control, with 60 per cent of the nation agreeing that focusing on what they can control has helped them through lockdown.

The growing need for control manifests in many ways for businesses and organisations. For example, we found that Lockdown has caused consumers to stick to familiar retailers, not discover new ones. Less than one in five people said they had tried an online retailer they hadn’t used before during lockdown.

Findings suggest that the need for control will be a key driver of choice and behaviour as we begin to navigate a return to ‘normal’, and providing consumers with more control over the experiences and interactions they have with brands is likely to win in 2021.

Meeting new, evolving needs

These learnings are an important reminder for all organisations to stay close to their customers during these times and understand their different lockdown experiences in order to meet new, evolving needs, behaviours and attitudes.

As the UK emerges from the pandemic, the ‘Willing & Able’ segmentation framework, which is backed by robust factor analysis, can enable brands to identify new growth areas. And start to answer every client’s million-dollar questions: What is going to stick? What is going to fall-away? Which trends have accelerated?

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