March 31, 2020

Normal Is the New Normal: What the COVID-19 Virus Means for Advertising

By Matthew Tilley
Categories

In a matter of days, our world changed dramatically. As the threat of the COVID-19 virus became clear and present in the U.S., elements that mark everyday life — school, work, restaurants, churches, concerts, movie theaters, retail stores — started to close.

Now that most of us have isolated ourselves at home, the natural assumption to make is that EVERYTHING has changed. While that isn’t the case, there have been some significant changes related to advertising and marketing to consumers.

What impact has this pandemic had on consumer needs, choices, and interests? And what do those changes mean for advertisers?

The Virus Has Clearly Created Changes

To help brands assess how to connect with consumers and understand what they need at any given moment, the Valassis team constantly evaluates consumer needs and interests. We do that through our consumer graph, which analyzes more than 150 billion signals each day — including location, intent, and promotional response signals from more than 120 million households.

As you would expect, there are constant shifts in attitudes and interests over time reflecting changes in popular culture, weather and seasons, whims, and tastes.

At this moment, there are some significant realities that everyone must accept, such as the majority of the population being stuck at home and vacations not being a high priority for most people. Our consumer interest data from the past few weeks has reflected these shifts, with the following patterns emerging:

  • Significant decreases in interest in films, TV awards, and celebrity information.
  • Marked declines in topics related to vacations, theaters, gyms, coffee shops, and markets.
  • A big jump in content consumption related to healthcare, medical facilities, and medical research.

To understand these dynamics more fully, we surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults. Their responses allowed us to hear directly from consumers, giving us a sense of their thoughts and feelings on the behavior change we were observing.

In their responses, many consumers said they are using online shopping, grocery delivery, restaurant carryout, and “buy online, pick up in store” services more frequently — some for the first time.

Consumers Continue to Live Their Lives

Occasionally, our data reflects dramatic shifts in some interests that veer outside of the normal ebbs and flows of life. These events impact nearly everyone — like the coronavirus pandemic. In our current environment, we’ve seen significant changes in interests related to the topics you’d expect: working from home and generally staying at home while keeping up with medical news and the economy.

So far, only about 2% of the more than 1,300 topics we categorize and track have shown considerable changes. This means that we have yet to see any major shifts for most topics and interests.

In short, most consumers are just trying to preserve as much normality as possible. They are living their lives, searching for information, seeking products, and reading up on topics that are entirely unrelated to the virus.

These areas of interest represent opportunities for brands to connect and foster connections — not only to comfort and reassure with the familiar, but also introduce new products and better solutions. After all, consumers are still eating, drinking, cleaning, being entertained, working out, connecting with friends, dreaming, planning, and building.

Sure, the message should adapt to reflect the reality of consumers being at home and living under certain restrictions. In addition, the call to action might need to change for some brands.

But most brands can still appeal to consumers by reaching them through the habits and interests they can continue to keep — and by addressing unique needs that stem from our new way of life.

Advertising Plays an Important Role

Most consumers appreciate appropriate, informative, and entertaining outreach from brands. In our survey, 87% of consumers agreed that they appreciated relevant and timely information from brands during the pandemic.

In part, it could be because these messages emphasize that some of the basic elements of life haven’t changed all that much. These messages might even help consumers preserve the lives they had before the pandemic.

That also squares with the fact that more than half of the consumers we surveyed continue to be loyal to the brands they preferred before the pandemic started. But, as was the case before the pandemic, many consumers are open to trying new brands and even new kinds of products.

Ultimately, consumers crave a sense of normalcy. They are still engaged consumers with many of the same desires, interests, and needs that they had a few weeks ago. Brands can play a crucial role in helping people fulfill those needs while offering a sense of connection — and that small investment today should lead to future success.

Want to learn more about current consumer attitudes and behaviors? Check out this infographic based on a survey of consumers commissioned by Valassis.

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