Brand loyalty in a pandemic: lessons from covid and panic buying

When the first wave of COVID-19 hit Australia’s shores, shoppers emptied supermarket shelves. What started with toilet paper and hand sanitiser soon moved on to bread, flour, canned goods, long life milk and any other products expected to see us through the impending apocalypse.

Grocery shopping was not for the faint hearted. And with so little to choose from, many consumers were forced to buy brands they had never previously purchased. As the dust begins to settle and supermarket shelves return to ‘normal’, what will this mean for brands moving forward? What lessons have we learned about brand loyalty that will affect post-COVID-19 marketing efforts?

How shopping habits changed – what the data revealed

Throughout the pandemic we’ve been keeping an eye on consumer sentiment through our COVID-19 Barometer. At the height of Australia’s panic buying in April, we saw how the pandemic was affecting consumer behaviour, particularly with regards to purchasing habits and brand loyalty.

The results from April showed that even though brand loyalty remained important to shoppers, a large majority were fine to switch brands if they were purchasing the same type of product. For example, 45% of Australian shoppers said they were happy to try a different brand of toiletries and deodorant – or 42% for toothpaste, shampoo, or toilet paper – as long as the product itself was like-for-like.

When it came to consumables, their willingness to try new brands dropped slightly, with around a third of shoppers willing to try a different brand of alcohol (37%), soft drink (34%) or canned goods (38%); but the willingness was still there. In fact, some brands experienced a dramatic uptick in sales during the pandemic, with many finding their way into shoppers’ trolleys for the first time.

Even now, despite the fact that the frenzied panic buying has all but ceased, supply chain disruptions mean shoppers are still dealing with scarcity. Our most recent survey from July 2020 showed 29% have had to shop around from store to store in order to find their favourite brands with 27% going online to buy something they’d normally find in store. A sizeable 32% have had to go without altogether due to being unable to find their usual products. In fact, demand is at such a high that a third (32%) have paid more for items in recent weeks than they would have pre-pandemic.

What does this mean for brands?

The lack of available products due to COVID-19 forced consumers into the ultimate taste test. The question is, now that they’ve been able to evaluate a larger proportion of the category, how will this affect their purchasing decisions long term?

We can look at separating shoppers into two main categories: Loyalists and SubstitutesLoyalists are those who are dedicated to their favourite brand and would have been incredibly frustrated when forced to buy an alternative. Yes, these buyers may have switched brands during the pandemic, but it’s likely they will switch straight back to their favourite as soon as it becomes available again.

Substitutes are less bothered if their favourite brand is available and are more open to discovering a better alternative. When their favourite brand returns to the shelf, they may revert to it—or they may decide they preferred the alternatives and happily substitute longer term. Brands can rest assured that the loyalists will likely return home. But where the substitutes go remains unknown.

Winning the brand wars post-COVID-19

The next six to 12 months will be an interesting time as challenger brands try to keep hold of new customers and established brands strive to win them back. Advertisers and marketers will want to determine how COVID-19 has changed consumer behaviour long term and the future implications for their brands. Should they adjust distribution, communications, and digital strategies?

Will consumers base their future choices against brand loyalty, an out-and-out value proposition, or other factors? Will selection criteria change, and how?

In these unprecedented times, it has never been more important to understand what consumers are thinking, and how they are engaging with your brand or category. By monitoring how attitudes and purchasing behaviour changes as the pandemic progresses, it will allow you to quickly pivot your strategy to accommodate new consumer interests.

We don’t know how long this pandemic will last. And we can’t predict what supermarket shelves will look like six months from now. But we do know that having real-time insights into consumer attitudes and behaviours will help brands adjust their strategies and stay ahead of the game.

By Stephen Walker, Toluna, Business Director - B&T

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