Months into the spread of COVID-19, it’s difficult for anyone to guess what the future holds, given the increasingly potent influence the novel coronavirus has on daily behavior, healthcare system capacities, regional policy, and the global economy. As of this writing, leading public health experts are mostly unsure to what extent the disease will ravage populations susceptible to it, or just how long hardline measures must be in place before the pandemic’s reign of terror is quashed.
The rapid succession of COVID-19 related deaths and hospitalizations, mounting unemployment and economic losses, and a lengthy suspension of many individual freedoms make this pandemic a public health crisis unlike any other. In fact, it may serve as a lasting trauma that will affect behavior long after the public health emergency is over in ways experts will only begin to understand in a post-COVID-19 world.
Secondary to the continuing loss of human life comes a huge blow to the economy, as companies small and large struggle to stay afloat with quarantines and shelter-in-place orders. According to Job Quality Index, it’s projected that around 37 million jobs are at stake directly due to the pandemic, based on a middle-of-the-road model which assumes a “moderate” crisis duration of a few months, and that supply chains remain mostly intact throughout. Those most vulnerable to job loss are working in frontline, public-facing positions, JQI said, making an average of $28,000 each year, however, there are several high-paying job sectors which are especially vulnerable as well, including those in the entertainment, travel, culinary, and other industries.
Those in nearly every industry are scrambling to understand what is happening in the minds and day-to-day experiences of crisis consumers, who are living in isolation and facing fears about themselves or loved ones contracting COVID-19, losing money and/or jobs, and losing access to essential supplies.
What should companies specializing in food, beverage, and dietary supplements look for in consumer behavior, and how do these companies offer what consumers are looking for during this crisis?
How Are People Changing? What Will Last?
As the pandemic rages on, it will likely determine whether consumers broadly view functional foods and dietary supplements as essential goods, or if these items fall under discretionary purchases that can fall by the wayside when it becomes harder to make ends meet. Most market researchers believe only time will tell.
Today, those who take dietary supplements and other nutritional products appear resoundingly sure these goods are essential to them, according to both surveys and sales data. Most trade associations have attributed much of the preliminary supply chain trouble they’ve experienced to consumers buying supplements in bulk as is common with food, toilet paper, and other essential goods.
According to Suzy, a consumer research company that has been polling the public since the pandemic had a full grip on public life in the U.S., 55% of those surveyed were more concerned about eating healthy food; 49% said they plan on purchasing more vitamins and supplements than before; 45% said they would be changing their diet to be more focused on health; and 32% said they’d spend more money than usual on health and fitness.
Additionally, a whopping 73% of consumers said they want food companies to offer healthy, easy recipes during the pandemic, and 52% want online workout classes.
However, a Gallup poll found people are failing to meet their own goals while in isolation. Exercise and diets are changing for the worse, as 48% of adults surveyed said the amount of exercise they get is unchanged, while 38% said they are getting less, and 14% said they are getting more.
The average diet of U.S. consumers appears to be worsening as well. According to Gallup, 28% of Americans said their diet has worsened, while only 13% reported dietary improvements, leaving 59% who determined their diets have not changed. Women reported greater rates of improved exercise compared to men, but, at the same time, they were also more likely than men to report their diets have worsened.
Who is Trusted?
Despite the small miracles performed daily by frontline supply chain workers, consumer trust in being able to access retail goods has been low. Additionally, trust appears to be shifting broadly in the direction of institutions, as many polls showed the leading agents garnering the greatest amount of public trust for information about the pandemic are federal and state governments, national and local newspapers, and scientific institutions. Could a trust in institutional know-how be seen in who consumers choose to buy products from? Steve Walton, president of consumer research group HealthFocus, believes it’s likely.
“We’re seeing a reawakening of the center store,” Walton said. “People are reintroducing themselves to the amazing benefits of processed foods that were overlooked before, such as shelf stability and portability.”
Walton went on to project that consumers will have a newfound appreciation of substantiated, big-budget food science applications, which may rise above the perceived benefits of products which are all-natural, organic, and un-fortified.
“We anticipate a return to faith in science, and in institutions, and if [institutions] do this well, some of these trends can be permanent. People believe in science and institutions because they will ultimately solve our problems,” Walton said. “Over the past several years, brands with institutional authority have been losing out to smaller brands challenging that authority, and we anticipate a reversal of this trend.”
Walton said it’s reasonable to believe that if today’s trusted brands can respond to a variety of demands, such as improvements and reliability in online shopping, and reworking distribution to accommodate bulk buying and customization trends, consumers will be more rigid in their trust of big companies. “People aren’t looking to experiment with their health products right now,” Walton said.
CPGs in general are being consumed in bulk due to panic-buying behaviors, and now that retail establishments are struggling to keep stock up with demand, it’s translating to the perception that global supply chains are struggling to maintain production. But most companies report the biggest disruptions are caused directly by panic-buying.
Direct-to-consumer (D-to-C) companies have experienced an updraft, signifying that trust is earned at this time through reliable convenience.
Several market research firms suggested the quarantine serves as the best opportunity for companies to break through in the D-to-C market. Subscription-based delivery services relieve an acute source of stress at the moment, and the appeal of convenience could last long after the world returns to normalcy. In the meantime, subscription-based deliveries help consumers avoid clamoring alongside their fellow panic-buyers, who may very well be carriers of the virus.
Consumers were also reintroduced to the appeal of shelf-stable goods to buy in bulk. The practicality a product with a shelf life of weeks or months offers consumers will likely not be forgotten. Oat milk alone saw a 428% increase in sales when the pandemic hit, according to Suzy.
Plant-based alternative foods tend to have greater shelf life, and consumers may view them as worthwhile for bulk buying. This appears to be the case according to market research from Nielsen, which showed that vegan meat alternatives soared by 280% in the weeks ending Mar. 7 and Mar. 14, compared to sales in those weeks of March last year.
Supply chain transparency has been a benchmark trend in the natural products industry in recent years. More than ever, multiple surveys confirm that consumers are spending more time looking into the sourcing and manufacturing of the products they buy in the wake of COVID-19. While leading healthcare agencies do not consider COVID-19 to be transmittable by food, other studies suggesting the virus can live for days on certain surfaces like plastic packaging clearly muddy the waters for consumers trying to determine whether food is safe or not; and consumers will attempt to exhibit some control over where and how the products they purchase are made.
There is plenty of consumer sentiment about seeking out domestically made products in the wake of COVID-19, according to market research firms. Very early into the pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suspended foreign facility inspections, though polling indicated a sensitivity to products imported from overseas even before the agency rolled back inspections. It’s also noteworthy that a few weeks after foreign inspections were suspended, the agency said it would only be conducting “mission critical” inspections on U.S. soil, which garnered a good deal of attention in national news.
With FDA suspending its normal inspection activities, virtually all responsibility for food safety and quality is under the auspices of suppliers themselves, and savvy consumers are likely aware of this, for the most part. Some are apparently seeking products sourced from supply chains they can navigate.
In multiple surveys, significant portions of Americans have definitively said they will no longer be purchasing products made in China, even as the Chinese government claimed the country is on the path to recovery. However, market researchers haven’t broken down the exact reasons for these newfound objections toward Chinese-made products.
What Does ‘Healthy’ Mean Now?
In purchasing decisions, consumers have clearly been drawn to products that empower them to improve their overall health and well-being as an immediate response to the public health crisis.
Immune health has been a steady segment in the natural products industry, with companies developing ingredients and finished products shown to modulate immune system responses. Key vitamins, minerals, herbal products, and more have been broadening in terms of the range of products offered and the claims associated with immune function support.
SPINS market research indicated spikes in sales of supplement with claims of immune system support since the outbreak.While there is no treatment for COVID-19, consumers are drawn to nutritional products and herbal remedies that research suggests improve oxidative stress, inflammatory responses, respiratory function, and cold and flu-like symptoms.
Another natural products segment gaining attention among consumers right now are products that target mood health, stress, and sleep. Mood health supplements were already a burgeoning market, and considered a top trend for 2020 by Mintel and other market research firms, well before COVID-19.
With anxiety over the public health crisis and mandatory lockdowns, many leading health experts agreed there will be a tangential mental health crisis associated with COVID-19. Access to mental health professionals and other therapeutic activities is restricted to telemedicine at this time, and social isolation can take a toll on people.
The American Psychiatric Organization has determined that 48% of Americans are anxious about the possibility of getting COVID-19, and nearly that amount (40%) are anxious about becoming seriously ill or dying. Meanwhile, 62% of Americans are anxious about the possibility of loved ones getting the virus; 36% of Americans said it is having a serious impact on their mental health, and many of these people are concerned not only with the virus itself but its impact on day-to-day life, running out of essential goods, and the economy.
It will be worthwhile to analyze how consumers make decisions or change behaviors about wellness, and where emotional well-being stands among other priorities. It will also be important to evaluate what consumers turn to for emotional support, in lieu of anything that requires prohibited face-to-face interaction.
How to Communicate with Consumers?
Companies attempting to advertise or engage with consumers during this time need to understand what people experiencing a crisis want to hear. It stands to reason that the onset of a pandemic may be a bad time for conventional advertising.
Like any other industry, consumers expect nutraceutical companies to remain trustworthy advocates, and this expectation has more depth than requiring that companies do not make egregious claims about nutritional products and COVID-19.
The early weeks of the pandemic were rife with advertisements prominently featuring people at crowded locations, partying, hugging, shaking hands, and sharing food, depictions which appeared to be relics from a bygone world even just days into the upending of day-to-day life. While consumers are looking for some forms of escape from hard news surrounding the pandemic, they are likely to be put off by tone-deaf advertising.
People are seeking timely information at an unprecedented rate, with spikes in use of social media, news, and even audio such as radio and podcasts (which were expected to take a hit after everyone stopped commuting). With greater levels of downtime, people are glued to screens for both information and entertainment.
As a news event, COVID-19 is being followed “closely” by 66% of Americans, making it the second-most attention-grabbing news item only topped by the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, 2001. Streaming services specializing in entertainment saw increased use by significant amounts each week, indicating the demand for online media includes some escape from the barrage of virus statistics.
Suzy suggested that consumers are looking for companies to provide outreach with a sense of “humanity,” and listed informative (52%) and honest (44%) as the two top qualities consumers would be looking for in advertising. It’s noteworthy to mention here that 38% of these consumers were looking for content specifically from the food industry. The company suggested that consumers in crisis are looking for content that speaks to their immediate needs or the needs of their community, and will likely be put off by conventional advertising that simply lists off the merits of a particular product.
Conscious consumption, summed up by “what’s good for me is good for the world,” has largely been fueled by environmentalist movements. Walton believes this pandemic will create an even greater focus on products that are innately integrated with a greater good. While some companies are taking on philanthropic efforts related to the pandemic, Walton said consumers will eventually be motivated by products that have community or global benefits integrated into the individual purchase, much like products that tout environmental sustainability.
There has been a galvanizing loss of entertainment due to the pandemic with the cancellation of virtually every sport, live TV show, movie theater premiere, performing arts event and more. Live streaming has been a saving grace for many entertainers, and it has proven anecdotally to be a space that health and wellness companies can inhabit successfully. Family cooking hours, hosted by chefs who would guide thousands of families in cooking the same meal in a step-by-step process, were a hit in China during the pandemic’s early days, for example.
According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), 56% of consumers surveyed in March were interested in what initiatives brands are taking in response to COVID-19 to help communities. This type of messaging was most popular among millennials and gen Z respondents, an age bracket which had shown interest in purpose-driven messaging from brands before the crisis began, 4A’s said. Additionally, 43% of consumers found it reassuring to hear from brands they know and trust during these uncertain times, while only 15% of consumers said they did not want to hear from brands.
For nutraceutical companies, these findings suggest there is a benefit to brand reputation for companies taking steps to manufacture a host of essential goods through the duration of the crisis. Even though doing so is more corporate citizenship than direct communication, consumers indicated they want to know what companies are doing, and will remember these responses. Companies which use alcohol in refinement processes, for example, have been urged by FDA to manufacture hand sanitizer. Other companies in possession of personal protective equipment (PPE) for manufacturing have also donated to first responders. Where supplies can’t be found, donations are also noteworthy “greater good” measures that will have a significant impact on whether consumers trust or support a brand, 4A’s said.
At the time of this writing, and at this moment in time during the pandemic, consumers have made clear what they’re looking for. It’s likely they will remember what companies have done for them personally, as well as the greater good, and that this will inform which brands they’ll seek to support as day-to-day life begins to take on normalcy.