We are at about four months into the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States and I can”;t wait for it to be over – but not for the obvious reasons. Yes, I”;d like to go to restaurants -; I miss lunch. Yes, I”;d like to pretend that I”;d go to the gym. And to be honest, I wouldn”;t mind going to the Irish pub up the street for a beer or two with friends. But what I want to be done with is the hand-wringing we”;re going through as an industry. For 5 months now, everything we read on industry blogs is how Covid-19 is changing OUR world, our client”;s world, and the shopper”;s world. These doom and gloom articles come in three flavors. One flavor focuses on how marketing research will change forever -; no more of this type of research or that type of research. The second flavor is that everything we know about the shopper has changed, both fundamentally and forever. And the third flavor is, what do we do while all this is going on?
______ Research Isn’t Gone
Let”;s start with research methods and one of everyone”;s favorite whipping boys – mall intercept. The prediction that intercept is dead is not proving out according to all my emails regarding mall interviewing sites re-opening. Does that mean we should re-embrace intercept research? Certainly not without taking a deep breath first. We have good reason to believe shoppers going to malls in July are either a more daring lot, a more skeptical of government lot, a more self-centered lot, or as some have suggested, the next group to lose the evolutionary battle and prove Darwin correct. As an industry, we”;ve closed our eyes to mall intercept sample biases for years and accepted the need for this convenience sample -; we pretend it”;s random and we know darn well it”;s not. Right now, we can”;t possibly pretend that. Modeling based on historical data is the other focus of our angst. Our modeling technology can”;t possibly take into account the disruption that has occurred and we”;re going to have to just give up on those types of models for now. That doesn”;t mean models such as segmentation research isn”;t still applicable -; more below on that.
So yes, there will be some changes to our research business, but we haven”;t seen this much hand-wringing since the invention of the internet or the death of surveys. Oh wait -; internet research is thriving and surveys didn”;t die either. Will some research businesses go under and will new businesses emerge? Sure -; because that”;s the nature of our business all the time, not just now -; we”;re just looking at this more closely because things are happening in a concentrated period of time. Can we be done obsessing about it though and go back to watching Gilligan”;s Island reruns?
For me, the most interesting flavor is the “;shopping has changed forever”; version of the pandemic story, because that”;s the kind of work I do. Predictions abound that the entire structure of consumer categories have been irreparably disrupted. Look -; in many categories, shoppers were forced to buy products they might not regularly buy. But that was due to availability, not choice. Just how many people do you think are saying, “;You know, dear -; this store brand toilet paper is just as soft and absorbent as the high priced stuff we used to buy”;? If you imagine a simple evaluation process following a trial of a new product, the presence of an alternative reason for buying, “;It”;s all they had”;, compared to “;It looked good”;, is enough to make the evaluation less positive. I”;m betting the oft-declared desire to return to normalcy will mean that market shares in CPG categories will look pretty much the same after the pandemic as before. Will we see some economic-based shifting? -; of course we will, because we always have during and after a recession. Is it likely to be a seismic shift? -; hardly.
Consumers Don’t Know The Future
The most embarrassing flavor of story involves what we should be telling our clients to do right now. This advice runs the gamut from advocating complex studies of what the shopper is thinking RIGHT NOW and then trying to leverage that, to the other end of the spectrum -; DO NOTHING. In a world where a large percentage of your buyer base is either unemployed or concerned about their future earnings prospects, trying to figure out what to do now is a waste of effort. First, your clients probably can”;t make a meaningful change in the short amount of time left for the lockdown. Second, we have no reason to believe consumers can give us good answers to future questions involving what they will do when the lockdown is over. In the absence of knowledge about what the economic world will be like, we can”;t expect anyone to predict their shopping behavior with any sense of accuracy, even allowing for the irrationality of economic choice. Go back to watching Gilligan”;s Island, and be prepared to rock and roll when this is over.
Read more: greenbook.org