The global spread of COVID-19 is shaping up to be a crisis like no other. Through analysis of over 100.6 million global “coronavirus” related searches, Captify’s latest Impact study gets a pulse on how this pandemic is impacting consumer behavior and how businesses can navigate through these uncertain times.

The world may have faced pandemics before, but novel coronavirus is different. The first worldwide crisis to hit during the internet age, the spread of this virus has already begun to radically reshape almost all forms of human interaction, and marketing is certainly no exception.

Captify has made it their mission to map these changes as they happen. ‘The London-based search intelligence company is the largest holder of consumer search data outside of Google and over the last few weeks the company has used its unique technology to understand the intent and interests of consumers across all channels, including voice search, desktop on-site search and in-app search. The results make for fascinating reading, more than ever, that search marketing is fast becoming the canary in the coal mine when it comes to mapping and predicting trends in consumer behavior.

Waking People Up To The Danger

The world has been slow to react to the danger of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019). Despite the virus spreading through the Chinese city of Wuhan back in January, the first learning from Captify’s report is that it took a considerable amount of time before consumers reacted to the danger at their doorsteps.

“Initially, we saw a very slow burn because I think people originally thought [coronavirus] was a very Chinese-related virus and it appeared to be spreading slowly,” explains Anand Siddiqui, Captify’s global VP of insights and analytics.

“Our data clearly shows just how people have been taken by surprise. A lot of people were thinking that it was a remote issue, only affecting small numbers. So despite all the warnings, it still took people a long time to wake up to the dangers.”

The trigger that caused the majority of people to sit up and finally take notice wasn’t the high-profile lockdowns of Chinese and Italian cities, but a major celebrity coming down with the virus. “It was only on March 12th when searches for COVID-19 overtook the actual number of cases. That was the day that Donald Trump banned flights from the EU and the NBA suspended its season, but it was also the day the news broke that Tom Hanks had caught the virus. I think this was a wake-up call for a lot of people, as suddenly they thought ‘well, if he can get it, so can I.'”

Search Behaviour In A Time Of Crisis

It may have taken the West a while to cotton on, but since the beginning of March, coronavirus has seen search behaviour change across the globe at a frightening pace. From Millennials to family shoppers, the study looked at how the pandemic drove remarkable changes in behavioural patterns and the brands that consumers are looking towards in this time of crisis.

The results so far have mirrored scenes on the nightly news; fast-moving consumer goods, home delivery services and pharmaceuticals have all seen massive boosts to their usual search interest, while travel, events and luxury goods have all seen declines that border on catastrophic. “We wanted to look at well-acknowledged audience segments and really try and understand the brands and products people are searching for and the motivations behind them,” notes Siddiqui. “Millennials, for example, seem very concerned with streaming and figuring out what they’re going to watch during lockdowns, while family shoppers are much more focussed on healthcare and household goods, searching for brands like Charmin, 3M and Panadol.”

“Generation Z is an interesting bunch,” says Siddiqui. “For them, it’s all about entertainment–with COVID-19 producing a real boom in interest around gaming. Gamers, in general, will be an important segment and we’re already seeing that these are starting to spike. People are already looking for ways to continue their social interactions, and gaming, as well as messaging apps like Google Hangouts and Zoom, are going to become more and more important over time.”

“Similarly, among professionals and business people, we’ve found that mental health has become a very important topic. I mean, it makes sense when you think about it–home is now suddenly a workplace for a lot of people, and there needs to be some sort of balance. With all the pressures that are coming through now, people are looking at ways to stay healthy at home, be that mediation, yoga or pilates.”

A Real Stress Test For Brands

Scanning across the brands mentioned in the study and you’ll quickly see that in these times of uncertainty, many people rely on long-established comfort brands. Part of Captify’s study looked at our current must-have products, and the list reads more like your mom’s shopping list that search history, with the likes of M&Ms, Lysol, Clorox, Bacardi and Cheerios all seeing huge spikes in interest.

“I think in one way, this shows how a real focus on brand-building has really paid off,” explains Siddiqui. “It’s no surprise that products that have made themselves sticky with the consumer are obviously top of mind when it comes to the essentials.”

However, he is keen to stress that it’s still very early. In fact, the study has followed a global spread of panic buying almost in real-time, reporting that there has been a 300 percent increase in searches for bulk buying and multipacks. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens to many brands if supply problems continue. If the trends we’ve seen over the last three weeks are anything to go by once your go-to product is no longer on the shelf, then I suspect your decision making process when looking for a replacement will be far-faster. I think all the money a lot of brands have spent to make sure that they’re top of mind when you’re in the shop will end up being wasted, and it’ll be interesting to see how brands are going to recover from that.”

The End Of Maslow’s Hierarchy

Even at this early stage, the virus is showing how our buyer behaviour has been fundamentally affected by the world wide web, leveling some of marketing’s longest-held orthodoxies in the process.

“I think we’re going to see massive changes in our behavior because of this,” Siddiqui warns. “An event like this has the power to rip up the way consumerism works and that is going to have huge consequences on the way that we shop, socialize and do business. I kind of think someone will rewrite Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ on the back of this. At the moment we’re seeing people hunker down, figuring out what they need to do and reassessing their priorities, and for the first time, things like entertainment and connectivity are being held up as basic needs.”

For marketers, the problem now is how to navigate this new reality. “We’re still seeing budgets being spent and we’re working with brands to help them understand how they can support their business in the coming months,” offers Siddiqui when I ask him for his predictions. “One thing that is glaringly obvious already is that marketers need to adapt and adapt quickly. It’s going to be important for marketers to remain engaged with their audiences, but also shift their message. We need to shift our narrative from ‘how can we sell more?’ to ‘how can we support our customers during this time?’ The messaging needs to be simple, factual and empathetic and focused on identity & values over profit or gain.”