Evaluating the uncertainty and future outlook of COVID-19

Coronavirus is resulting in brands having to re-evaluate their strategies for 2020 and beyond, something that will have major implications when it comes to issues such as new product development, marketing and advertising campaigns

COVID-19 is a once-in-a-generation pandemic that is having a profound impact on the ways that consumers think, behave and conduct their day-to-day lives. At the same time, a high level of uncertainty exists around the disease, such as the true extent of cases, whether there will be subsequent waves of the virus and how long before a vaccine will be created.

As well as the physical health implications of coronavirus, it’s also shaping consumer attitudes and priorities in several key areas, particularly least because of the very real risk of a recession owing to government lockdowns.

Indeed, in times of uncertainty and reduced financial confidence, consumers can be more skeptical about the practices and policies of brands, especially larger multinationals. This is something that will affect brand loyalty as consumers shop around more for products that they feel best suit their needs. As such, it is crucial that brands demonstrate good value for money and are seen to be acting in the best interests of the consumer.

When targeting consumers with products and services that align with evolving need states as a result of coronavirus, trust and transparency is a key issue that could act as a barrier when it comes to appealing to consumers. Dr Kevin Robinson spoke to Mike Hughes, Research Director of FMCG Gurus to delve a little deeper.

KSR: During and after the coronavirus pandemic, how would you summarise consumers’ key concerns?

MH: When it comes to COVID-19, consumers are more concerned about their overall health and wellness as opposed to focusing on specific issues. This is because they recognise that COVID-19 is impacting both their physical and mental well-being. From a physical perspective, consumers are becoming more conscious about their immune health.

This is because they are questioning their vulnerability to disease and illness … even if they previously deemed themselves to be healthy. However, mental well-being is also an issue for consumers in an era of uncertainty as they feel the effects of disruptions to their daily lives and have constant worries related to issues such as the threat of a second wave of the virus and the state of the economy.

Mike Hughes

Weight gain is also a major worry for consumers because of greater levels of inactivity and increased snacking, both because of the long-term risks and awareness of complications that can arise from COVID-19 if the individual is obese.

KSR: We’ve seen a recent, short-term spike in VMS purchases … but what are the long-term repercussions and what should industry do to be prepared?

MH: Consumers are demonstrating a greater willingness to shop online in the wake of COVID-19. Moreover, even after initial restrictions on movement have been lifted, consumers indicate that they will still be cautious about mass gatherings and crowded spaces.

This means that shopping online will be more frequent. The industry needs to look to respond to this through increase distribution channels; at the same time, brands should also look to launch direct-to-consumer initiatives that eliminate the need to go in store.

It must also be remembered that consumers can sometimes be conscious about buying products online because of the expert advice they can receive in store as well as the ability to physically evaluate products. These are barriers that the online industry needs to help overcome, such as offering consumers personalised nutritional information online.

KSR: Likewise, immune health is top of mind right now. Might this represent a change in focus for certain nutraceutical companies?

MH: Immunity will be a major issue for consumers in 2020 and beyond. After all, for many, a healthy immune system is associated with being able to recover from serious illness quickly and effectively.

Consumers will look to actively seek out products that boost their immune system across the food, drink and supplement industry, with ingredient claims having a significant influence on product choice. As such, the nutraceutical industry needs to focus products around helping to boost the immune system.

Concurrently, it is important that products are not seen to be making misleading claims about reducing the chance of getting COVID-19 or not getting serious health problems as result.

KSR: In the same vein, especially with Big Pharma under an intense spotlight at the moment, what other health trends might gain popularity?

MH: When it comes to looking to boost health, consumers will adopt a back-to-basics approach to nutrition. This means that they will seek out products that they deem to be affordable and natural and trustworthy. This is something that will also drive demand for clean label and plant-based products.

Consumers want to improve their health to minimise the risk of disease and illness. At the same time, they are also concerned about an impending recession and, as such, are looking to reduce their spend on food, drink and supplements.

That does not necessarily mean that they are always looking for the cheapest priced product, but it does mean that consumers pay close attention to perceptions of value and affordability. This is also resulting in consumers turning to everyday products that they know and trust and deem to be natural and sustainable, something that will also drive demand for clean label and vegan/vegetarian type products.

Again, it’s important that brands are not seen to be making misleading claims when it comes to healthy or sustainable a product is.

KSR: Has there been a shift in thinking from treating to preventing illness as a result of COVID-19?

MH: Consumers are taking a more proactive approach to health and are focusing more on prevention rather than treatment when it comes to health problems. Although this is something that will intensify in 2020 and beyond, it was already a trend that was gaining traction long before the pandemic.

Indeed, consumers are adopting a long-term approach to health and recognise that current dietary habits and lifestyle traits may increase the risk of health problems later in life. As such, consumers are taking a proactive approach to help, adopting a prevention rather than cure attitude and looking to make fundamental improvements to diets and exercise regimes.

KSR: How can the nutraceutical industry benefit from post-pandemic changes to lifestyles, healthcare and application areas?

MH: The nutraceutical industry will benefit from consumers wanting to lead healthier lifestyles and improve their dietary habits as a result of COVID-19. Although the extent to which consumers will stick to such health goals after the pandemic has passed is debatable, there will nevertheless be an increased interest in functional products that help to boost health.

If the industry is to truly capitalise on this, they need to clearly promote ingredients and the benefits of products in a transparent way so that products are deemed to be credible as opposed to misleading. Affordability will also be a major issue for consumers that brands need to address, especially as premium pricing can often be seen as a barrier for healthy living.

KSR: On a broader scale, what can virtual and digital technologies bring to the industry?

MH: Technology is something that will be able to help facilitate health goals in the long-term in a variety of ways. One way in which this can be achieved is though the development and mainstream promotion of products that offer personalised nutrition.

This can be done through methods such as DNA/genetic testing or patches that are applied to the skin. This can provide personalised nutritional information in real-time to inform consumers about what nutrients their body may lack and how they can address this. Such technology will be seen as a beneficial way to help maximize health and reduce the risk of being vulnerable to disease and illness.

Mike Hughes has more than 13 years of experience analysing consumer trends, attitudes and behaviours and currently heads up the research and insight division at FMCG Gurus. Mike has a particular interest in highlighting how consumer attitudes and behaviours can often differ and what the true meaning of trends are for the industry.

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