(R)evolution: How COVID-19 changed consumer research forever

Mette Breith
By Mette Breith | 11 November 2020
Mette Breith

Mette Breith, director of marketing intelligence, OMD

On Friday, March 13, this year, I was flying home to Sydney after a business trip to Brisbane. At this point COVID-19 still felt distanced to me and nothing that, in my wildest imagination, was about to change everything.

It was only a week before that we had started getting questions from clients on consumer reactions to COVID-19, and on this Friday we had shared our second report on Australian Consumer Sentiment related to COVID-19. I had no idea how important these reports would become.

But as I boarded the plane home, I got a call to make a roster for 50% of my team working from home for the next week.

“Social distancing” was suddenly a real thing! I quickly sent through a plan, one that would never end up being used, as when Monday came the whole agency (worldwide) had moved to remote working. What many people believed about the need to physically work together would be disproven in a matter of hours. Suddenly we had to work together, whilst apart.

As soon as we got Microsoft Teams started on that first Monday, we have never looked back. Our new normal happened overnight.

As a researcher by heart, and in my role heading up the Marketing Intelligence team at OMD, consumer behaviour and sentiment is something that is constantly on my mind. COVID-19 has been a study in human behaviour from day one, showcasing the truly global world we live in, where the virus has spread with human mobility, and people have carried the virus to every part of the world. From changed shopping behaviours and a sudden need to stock pile toilet paper on account of a photo on social media to the mental impact a worldwide event like a global pandemic has on people, there has been no shortage of impacts and disruption to consumer behaviour and sentiment.

Act and Pivot
Probably the two biggest changes that happened to the way we work in the OMD Marketing Intelligence team happened within the first couple of days after I boarded that plane home.

The first was the speed with which we are now delivering insights. Many people talk about the significant ramp up of digitalisation in work environments and business models because of COVID-19. In market research we have worked with “real life” data for a long time, but it was only when COVID-19 happened that the need for real time insights to sentiment became such a key requirement. At the height of the pandemic events unfolded so quickly that insights generated were only truly valuable for a couple of days (if even that long; decisions were made and acted upon within hours). This largely impacted how we work, both when listening to consumer conversations but also when asking them questions. We have gotten leaner and have drastically changed our turnaround times. We’ve pushed the boundaries for what is a short turnaround, which in turn has given us shorter and pointier reports as well as surveys – our key focus is on what our clients need to know and what they need to do.

There is now a life BC (before coronavirus) when it comes to consumer sentiment. Previously, in some of our not-so-proud moments in research, we had asked consumers what they did six months ago. These questions are finally (thankfully!) obsolete, and we now focus more on current sentiment and future expected behaviour. Nevertheless, life AD (after disease/after drug discovery/after disruption/after domestication) is hard to predict and no one really knows how AD is going to look like. For brands, it has never been more important to speak to consumers in the right moment, with the right message. For us, it has never been more important to gather and provide insights while they are still relevant. It’s not only COVID-19 driving this, but events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Stop Hate for Profit campaign are driving up demand for in-the-moment insights.

The second thing that changed because of COVID-19 was a change in how and where we look for insights. The importance of insights based on unprompted consumer sentiment has grown significantly during the last six months - looking at consumer signals that we can listen to and observe.

Forteen months ago, we relaunched the Marketing Intelligence team. We had gone from a more siloed way of looking at consumer research to a holistic approach, emphasising multiple data sources and crediting the value of context to our clients’ questions and need for insights. So, when COVID-19 happened we were prepared and able to further transform our ways of working, but we needed to speed up our evolution.

We had a few projects in the pipeline that suddenly changed as they lost their (short term) relevancy, and my focus was on how we could help our clients and the agency hrough the coming months. We quickly made sure everyone in the team had the necessary training to access and use social listening tools and all other real time data sources we use at OMD. We then set about producing a series of different insight reports, to keep our people and our clients informed on ever-changing consumer sentiment mid COVID-19. Six months later we have released more than 30 real time consumer sentiment reports (delivered weekly) as well as launched a series of quantitative consumer research. We have made more than 40 client specific insight reports, held two client live streams on the impact of COVID-19 and the road ahead, and we have obtained a whole new appreciation for speed and in-the-moment sentiment.

I could never have known, when I boarded that plane home from Brisbane in March, how all-encompassing the events of the next six months would be and how much they would change both my professional and personal life forever. I doubt we will ever go back to pre-COVID-19 ways of working, and I’m grateful for that. In our team at OMD, we embraced the disruption 2020 has brought and I believe we have proved to ourselves we are hyper-agile and hyper-dynamic. We have supercharged our toolbox to stay at the forefront of marketing intelligence and consumer sentiment, whatever the future holds.

And those Consumer Sentiment Reports that we started in March of this year… we are still sending them weekly, six months later.