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COVID Concern Across Demographics Beginning to Converge

COVID Concern Across Demographics Beginning to Converge

Steve Heisler

black and white photo of woman looking out round window

New data shows that regardless of generation, political affiliation or geographical location, consumers in all demographics are concerned about the coronavirus

Consumers across the country have been advised to maintain social distancing and stay inside for risk of spreading COVID-19. By conducting weekly surveys since mid-March, ENGINE Insights, a research and analytics division of ENGINE, has discovered that while not all consumers immediately curbed dangerous behavior, a growing number of them are starting to take the threat of coronavirus seriously. This number is growing exponentially and includes consumers of all stripes.

The latest results of their pulse survey, released April 13, show that generation and political affiliation were originally strong differentiating factors in how concerned consumers were about coronavirus, but that has reduced as the disease has taken on the human face of loved ones and friends. Don Simons, CEO of ENGINE Insights for North America, spoke to Marketing News about how marketers can use this data to craft universal messages to consumers while still accounting for minor discrepancies across generations and political party.

Q: What’s the single biggest takeaway for marketers from your surveys?


A: We’ve been asked a lot about what is the next—what does three, six months look like? We don’t know. Anyone who [says they] know is just selling something. We believe in evidence-based direction, and some of that is understanding how things change and being able to quantify that. I couldn’t draw a line in the sand yet on any of that and [know] what the next six months looks like. But knowing where the trends are going, what the velocity of change is and how dramatic the change is can help inform some of the decisions … it’s important to stay informed along the way with some kind of quantitative data. Otherwise, you’re just sitting frozen. Part of the reason to keep doing quick-turn measurement is so that you know if you need to course-correct. … [In the short term], marketers need to understand what their brand has permission to do.

Q: How can marketers use the data in your surveys to best demonstrate empathy for their consumers?

A: One of the things we have started to measure is that consumers really want engagement. My biggest takeaway right now is to continue to engage. This is not a time to go quiet. I think we need to be really careful about the messaging and what that engagement looks like. It needs to be authentic, but it can’t ignore the state of the world that we’re in. We have started to ask people, “Do you want to talk to brands?” And then the vast majority said yes, absolutely—in fact, a third of them. The engagement makes them feel a lot more positive. Almost nobody said it would be negative.

Brands get credit when they’re hearing and listening to the consumer’s voice and when they’re engaging. The method and the content of that engagement might change by brand, but for sure, I think brands should feel comfortable that people want that level of engagement. And they should reach out that way.

Q: What about if a marketer isn’t working in an industry directly affected by COVID-19?

A: I can argue that the product or service not having anything to do with [COVID-19] might be true and it might not be affected by the virus. But at this point, with the numbers that we’re seeing, every person is affected by the virus. We’ve seen two interesting things. One, the concern about the virus has grown significantly, and we’re up to [90%] of people saying they’re very concerned.

More importantly, what we’ve seen is it’s becoming much more personal, and therefore more real. We’ve been asking people for a few weeks now: “Do you know someone who’s been quarantined, exposed or diagnosed?” and a few weeks ago, right around when the NBA shut down, 13% said they did. This past weekend, it was up to [45%].

Every brand has got to be aware of the messaging that the virus itself is something that everyone is concerned about, and we’re getting into the majority of people feeling it personally. And the knock-on effects are very personal, too. Like, unemployment … When you think about how dramatically a lot of people’s lives have changed in the last couple of weeks, even if they’re not sick, unemployment and things like that have been really big variables in their lives.

Q: What do you make of the fact that there remains discrepancy between how different generations are viewing COVID-19? Are different marketing approaches warranted?

A: A couple weeks ago, there was a pretty significant difference just even around [level of] concern. The younger generations weren’t as concerned. In the last couple weeks, that’s changed a lot. Those younger generations have started to exhibit the same level of concern that we saw elsewhere in the population. That gap has tightened.

But how they’re affected by it and the change in behaviors is still really different. Initially, the older generations were actually less impacted by cancellations and closures—things like schools getting closed or working from home impacted them less directly. So part of what Gen Z and the millennials started to feel more were those things.

We have our service, Cassandra, which focuses on 35 and under, so we have a real expertise in the younger demographics. And the thing they’re seeing, most particularly across Gen Z, is that everyone’s talking about the obvious binging of shows and movies, podcasts, stuff like that. But we’re also seeing a big increase in learning crafting, a lot of people learning a language, taking the time to learn to cook—maybe out of necessity—joining book clubs or setting personal goals and fitness. There’s a sense of boredom, but they’re addressing it in a lot of ways that are not as obvious or maybe not as mainstream in the press right now. Understanding that and marketing to that is great. Even making that a subtle part of the messaging would lend more fuel to the younger generation.

Q: Are there particular types of messages or channels that are going to resonate more with a younger generation than an older one?

A: That depends on the brand and the industry, so it’s hard to make a sweeping statement on that. I don’t know that that’s changed much. Their media consumption hasn’t changed a whole lot from what we could see initially. Older generations are taking in more media, they’re streaming more; younger generations already were.

I wouldn’t necessarily just continue to do what you’re doing, because you want to acknowledge the change in the world around them. What we’re seeing from especially younger generations—that sense of boredom and what they’re doing to address it—not every brand has the opportunity to plug into that, but where it makes sense is something they’d want to think about.

Q: In the latest survey, you included a new metric, which is demonstrating a rise in the number of people who believe we should practice strong social distancing measures for two months or more. Given that belief, how can marketers find that balance between focusing on how their audience is feeling about today and how they feel about the next few months?

A: This is pretty heavily influenced by recent communications – people are starting to absorb that this will be going on for a while. With the end of the school year approaching it is looking inevitable that they will be done for the year, for example. Marketers need to acknowledge the current circumstance folks are in—and remember that it’s different in different parts of the country – while speaking to the coming “new normal.”

Q: What findings surprised you the most?

A: Two things: One was that we thought we’d see more geographical difference at the top level. We talked a little bit before about these differences in geography on some of the specific behaviors, but the concern around the virus was pretty universal. That was a little bit of a surprise, though, and I think a lot of ways a nice thing, right? This is affecting everyone across the country the same way, and you have that sense of we’re all together, which seems to be taking root.

The other thing shouldn’t be a surprise, but seeing the velocity of change is absolutely incredible. As a researcher, we’re used to a world where numbers never move fast at all. Things just don’t change that much. Your deeply held beliefs and your attitudes take a really long time to change outside of really traumatic events.

Photo by Marina Khrapova on Unsplash.

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at