Market research has a part to play: Early thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis...

2nd April 2020 14:51

By James Hinde, Research Director. Email James

The COVID-19 crisis has seen an unprecedented shutdown of our daily life and market researchers could be forgiven for thinking that we too should shut up shop, go home and isolate till the world returns to life.  Can we really claim to be essential workers?  Market research is just a luxury, is it not?  For the good times only, when consumers are spending, companies have money and need an edge.  The first part of any budget to be cut in any crisis.

But, when you look back at the history of market research, you find a very different story, as research has often played a key role in a crisis.  The very first focus groups were used by the Americans before WWII to test anti-Nazi war propaganda and showed that it was having the opposite effect to that intended.  The intensity of the imagery was making the public scared of the Nazis rather than in support of going to war. 

Modern market research is said to have been born just after WWII in fact, when new manufacturing methods and an enthusiasm for progress gave more and more choice to consumers, putting pressure on brands to stand out. 

Social research was revitalised in Britain after WWII as a tool for social and economic development.  One of the legacies of the War, in Britain, was the Government Social Survey – later to become the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 1996.  Social research has helped tackle social challenges such as poor health and other behaviours.

In my life, I have never seen a crisis of the scale of COVID-19, but I have conducted research through September 11th, the 2008 great recession and the recent Brexit shenanigans (oh, how we miss that now!) and the response has always been the same. To recalibrate and understand what the new world means to us, and how we should approach it, research has always played a role.

There are a number of ways in which we believe market research is important during and beyond this crisis.  We have given just a handful of areas below.

  • Social research: Understanding the thoughts and feelings of the public will be integral to the success of self-isolation measures and communications, as well as keeping social order.  The government’s current communications rely on a very specific message – Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect our NHS.  Does this messaging work?  Has it been researched?  Will the communication be tracked?  Research can inform this campaign.
  • Economic development: Comprehensive information on businesses, the impact of the crisis on them, by sector and size and the help they need will be key at both a national and local level.  A recent British Chambers of Commerce survey for example highlighted the fact that 6 in 10 businesses have no more than 3 months cash left - an important statistic.
  • Brand management: Retail and leisure brands who have had to close down will need guidance on achieving the right tone and how to retain relationships with their customers whilst no longer operating.  Many brands (Sports Direct or Wetherspoons) have caused significant damage to their reputation in their responses to the crisis.  Others are unsure of the balance between safety and retaining continuity for their consumers.  Having good data on consumer attitudes and perceptions of your brand will be crucial at this time.
  • B2B purchasing: Many established B2B supply chains will find themselves disrupted during and after the crisis, as operating across  borders becomes more difficult, many manufacturing plants close and costs increase.  Companies may find themselves in a very different environment and will need research to navigate this.
  • Healthcare and other essential products and services: Our clients manufacturing medical equipment for the ICU environment are likely to see demand grow, and need research to be able to design and launch critical products and get them to where they are most needed.

These are just some examples.  We will be thinking about and speaking to all of our clients to understand their changing requirements during the crisis.  We look forward to this dialogue.

How we can help...

Modern research techniques are well equipped to deal with these challenges.  All of our research staff are now working securely from home.  Online panels allow us to reach out to consumers globally.  Our remotely-located telephone interviewing team can interview consumers and businesses alike.  Qualitative research can be conducted remotely using a wide choice of web platforms.  Face-to-face research can be substituted by other methods in almost all cases.  We are still conducting fieldwork in a range of areas and are finding, if anything, that response rates are actually better as people are often at home, keen to interact and with more time to commit to research.

We are mindful of the need for sensitivity though. We need to be open with participants about why we are conducting research and feel comfortable with our explanation. In some cases we may have to decide that the research planned is not appropriate at that time. We will need to be sensitive to the current tone in social attitudes.  We will need to consider vulnerable audiences much more.  For example our interviewers have received training on how to help people we contact who may be struggling during the crisis.  We can offer useful support and signposting. 

We still have a role to play...

So, we are not shutting up shop, we remain open for business.  With safety as our priority and with respect to the crisis, but open nonetheless.  We will adapt as we always have done to respond to this crisis and continue to be there for our clients, to understand how their requirements change and how we can help.  Because, we don’t know how this will all go, but we still have a role to play and whilst we do, we are not giving up.     

If you would like to talk to us about any of the above, please get in touch

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