Understanding Pandemic Consumer Behavior: Are You a Gung-Hoer or Play It Safer?

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There is no crystal ball showing us what’s coming next for the COVID-19 crisis. Despite checking the news every day, multiple times a day, there is no clear picture of how things will look tomorrow, or even a month from now. Though we may finally be able to tame those eyebrows and get our pump on at a gym, not everyone is comfortable doing so because we can’t predict what the results of our newfound “freedoms” will be.

The questions for brands and businesses become: as we begin to open again, who will come? Is our audience the same or has it changed? How are people navigating their lives in this new way of living?  From what we can tell so far, there are definitely two extreme mentalities, plus the “middle grounders” make up the majority of the population. The two mentalities on the extremes of the Great Divide can give us context:

  • The Gung-Hoers: At one far end of the Great Divide are the Gung-Hoers. For them, wearing a mask may be stifling their personal freedoms and they want things to go back to “normal.” They want brands and businesses to continue forward by pushing though the pandemic to maintain the economy. The Gung-Hoer views alterations in business practices and enforcing safety requirements as a hassle, even though these requirements may be legally required. They will use any means to renew “normalcy” — waging protests, not wearing masks, not following social distancing and even violence — as a way to get it. Some see wearing a mask as an “infringement on their civil liberties” or they don’t like the way it makes them appear to others. At this extreme of the Great Divide, the Gung-Hoers believe the new rules of the pandemic don’t really apply to them.
  • The Virtual Realities: At the other end live the Virtual Realities. For this group, the days of living “in-person” are gone. They take the rules of the pandemic extremely seriously and stay home at all costs. The Virtual Realities are leveraging technology to the best of their ability and converting all of their everyday actions into online variants — from grocery shopping, to working out, to dating and socializing. They bring the world to them and live through their iPhones, computers and tablets. This new way of living has created a “spectacular and unplanned-for demand” for new technologies to stay connected and productive. When the Virtual Realities must emerge, they strictly follow social distancing and safety guidelines, believing that their individual actions truly affect the greater community. At this extreme of The Great Divide, the Virtual Realities believe the new rules of the pandemic are consequential.

Knowing these two extremes enables us to hypothesize about the group of people (made up of a variety of sub-groups) who lie in the middle. Keep in mind that this group is a spectrum in itself with different mentalities that make up sub-groups. A general look at the middle group can help to build understanding:

  • The Play-it-Safers: Accepting of a new reality but nostalgic for how things used to be, most of the population falls somewhere along the spectrum of the Play-it-Safers. The Play-it-Safers are leveraging technology and also venturing out into the world to get what they need and do what they feel is “safe.” They make informed decisions to assess the risks of their actions and take into account the health and safety of others. The Play-it-Safers motto is “do no harm.” They don’t want to contribute to the spread of the coronavirus but also want to continue to do the things that bring them joy and fulfillment. The most difficult challenge facing The Play-it-Safers is finding the balance between the rational and economic demands of fighting the virus and the emotional desires of living life to the fullest. For the Play-it-Safer, the new rules of the pandemic are guidelines for harm reduction that can flex to accommodate the constant vacillations between emotional yearning and rational necessity.

It is important that brands and businesses take steps to understand how people think and feel right now.  Even “on the fly” research will help reveal how audiences will ultimately act in such an uncertain time. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Take the news lightly

Watching the news is a quick way to “see what’s happening” in the world, but you can’t trust the news to give you the full picture. The news is a source of extremes, in that it tends to only show the far ends of the spectrum. You can use the news as a starting point to take a look at the most disparate mentalities of the Great Divide, but you have to use other means of gathering information as a way to push past the surface and into the lives of the “Play-it-Safers.”

Get to the heart of the matter

Empathy is a powerful word that is being used a lot in marketing and market research circles. People will be more willing to share how they feel if it is in an environment where they can express themselves freely and feel heard. Using complicated tools or technology to “speak with” people will only elicit surface responses. You need to use methodologies that enable people along the spectrum of the Great Divide to remain in their own element, where they’re most comfortable. During times like these, even conversations using the good old-fashioned phone are likely to yield more candid results than a fancy virtual focus group.

Start small

If you are comfortable, go for a drive into town or take a walk through your neighborhood and talk to people. Or even set up a few FaceTime interviews with friends, family and colleagues. Ask them questions about how they’re navigating this time and think about where they may be on the spectrum of the Great Divide. If you contact people who live in different places, have them ask the same questions and compare your responses and any regional differences. It’s amazing how helpful the learnings from a small number of short interviews can be in your next team brainstorm.

Having an understanding of the mentalities of the Great Divide, especially the Play-it-Safers, will be critical for brands and businesses as we move through the pandemic. Focus not on fancy tools but on ways to dive deeply into the emotions people are feeling and the actions people are taking as we all navigate this new way of living.


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