Gartner Research

Consumers’ Evolving COVID-19 Concerns Point to What’s Next

Published: 14 December 2020


Consumers’ worries about the U.S. economy and illness haven’t let up, and data shows renewed urgency around product availability. At play in early 2021: the role of vaccines in staving off widespread shutdowns and fortifying a weary populace. CMOs must orient brands toward uneasy customers.

Data Snapshot

Figure 1. 10 Waves of Consumer COVID-19 Concerns Show Trends

Data Insights

CMOs are responsible for crafting their organization’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic amid ever-changing developments and persistent uncertainty. Throughout the pandemic, Gartner clients want to know when consumer mindsets shift as a result of new conditions, and how to pivot to effectively assuage consumers’ fears. Ten months of trending data from the Gartner Consumer Community panel (see Note 1) reveals:

  • Consumer distrust of others stays high — While some concerns have remained high throughout the pandemic, their meaning has changed depending on the most recent developments. Consumers have continually been wary of other people’s actions; the concern we call “people not acting in the interest of the larger community” has never dipped lower than a ranking of seven. But what that meant in March versus November has changed. In the beginning of the pandemic, selfish behavior referred to hoarding of goods just as consumers were heading to shops to stock up for shelter-in-place orders. By the end of the year, this concern had taken on new meaning to refer to people not wearing masks, not social distancing and engaging in behaviors that have a high risk of transmitting the virus.

  • Economic and personal health top spots hold steady — Two concerns have remained firmly at the top of consumers’ minds since March — the U.S. economy and the prospect of falling ill. Each of these concerns could have a significant impact on consumers. If the U.S. economy fails, there would be a cascade effect in which jobs, income, the ability to procure goods and the health of local communities become imperiled. Falling ill (self or family) also comes with a host of potential consequences beyond the understandable terror of a severe case, hospitalization or worse. Long-term health effects as well as quarantine restrictions disrupt consumers’ lives and their ability to earn money or stay employed.

  • Lockdown fears return — Lockdowns have been a more seasonal concern for consumers, and always appear at the top of the concerns list when relevant. In April, “not knowing how long a lockdown will last” appeared as the sixth highest-rated concern — it was closely related to the run on goods in stores.In November, “the prospect of another widespread shutdown” was ranked fourth. However, consumers’ lockdown-oriented behaviors may be different the second time around: Despite consumers beginning to worry once again about goods shortages, there haven’t yet been any documented shortages (as of December). A combination of sturdier, more prepared supply chains and consumer prudence may be contributing factors to keeping virtual and physical shelves stocked.

  • National concerns tend to outrank personal ones — Consumers’ top fears are generally broad and concern national-level issues. Local concerns fall below national ones, but not by much. Awareness of local and neighborhood businesses shutting down has been a concern in consumers’ top 10 since the beginning of March as they worry those establishments won’t be able to weather the pandemic due to lack of resources and support (see ). Consumers worry more about local and neighborhood businesses shutting down than the more general “brands and companies,” likely because consumers conceive of many corporations as too big to fail. Additionally, such closures may be perceived as less likely to impact local economies.

  • Holiday gatherings trigger infection-spreading worry — The holiday season prompted renewed fears of rising infection rates due to social gatherings. The concern rose from a rank of eleven ahead of Thanksgiving to fifth in the first week of December. But, come January, the attention devoted to this worry will likely be distributed to other existing and newly recognized fears. The timely approval and handling of vaccines, for example, debuted on the list (ranked 22) in early December.

What You Need to Do

Near-Term Actions

Changing data on consumers’ COVID-19 concerns gives marketing leaders opportunities to adjust messaging, customer experience and brand positioning over time.

  • Address potential product shortages.In early 1Q01, product shortages are likely to continue their renewed upward path on the consumer concerns list as lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders become a reality in many locations due to skyrocketing infection rates. Many brands learned important supply chain lessons in the spring, and even if they cannot guarantee dependable availability in all channels if large swaths of consumers choose to stock up simultaneously, they know better how to transparently communicate this to customers (see ). Another lesson from the spring: Consumers are likely to become brand-agnostic amid perceived scarcity. Smaller brands can expect opportunities for customer acquisition and should ready themselves to either push more inventory to retailers or hone a seamless experience on direct-to-consumer channels (see ).

  • Reinforce safety on-premises. Consumers can muster only limited trust that other people will behave in ways that are safe or beneficial to the larger community, which has consequences for all brands with physical premises, such as retail, hospitality, entertainment and financial services. Assuage consumers by managing spaces through enforcing common-sense COVID-19 practices like masking and social distancing, and reinforcing guidelines for on-premises shopping (see ).

  • Offer hybrid experiences.Despite the relatively low level of concern around vaccine distribution as of December, anticipate that consumers will come to see widespread vaccination as a more pressing issue. If consumers’ expectations for a vaccine go unfulfilled, that could hamper high expectations for freer consumer behavior in spring 2021. Brands should offer “hybrid” (online plus offline) COVID-19-safe experiences to consumers to satisfy their desire for social connection and outings while they wait for widespread immunity to drive infection rates down (see ). Brands seeking to position themselves as clued-in to the ongoing plight of consumers must acknowledge the worn-down state of living during the pandemic, along with the realities of knowing people affected by the illness. Anthemic brand messages, such as Kohl’s’ spot “Give With All Your Heart, manage to address the value of real-life interactions alongside the undeniable fact of widespread infection.

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Note 1: Gartner Consumer Community

While the Gartner Consumer Community (n ≈ 450) resembles the U.S. general population, the data presented above is based on the responses of community members who chose to take these ten individual activities from March 2020 through December 2020. This sample may not be representative of the general population and the data should only be used for directional insights. This analysis excludes the first wave in early March, which was amended in the second wave of late March to establish the question wording and format that subsequent waves followed.


Consumer and Culture Insights Team

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