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Consumer Sentiment Around COVID-19: It’s a Rollercoaster, Not a Curve

By David Lian

Consumer Sentiment Around COVID-19

As we cross the 50-day mark since COVID-19, it has become abundantly clear that tracking public sentiment towards the pandemic is far from simple. Sketched on a chart, it looks like an unpredictable roller-coaster, and yet - could there be some value in understanding the measure a little better?

Our analytics teams in Zeno Group Asia have been working since March to help clients better understand the public sentiment as affected by the COVID-19 pandemic by looking at social conversation data, cross-referenced against other data points - such as news coverage and government actions.

Our initial hypotheses around COVID-19 was inspired on the Kubler-Ross model for five stages of grief. Certainly, we could see that in early stages where cases of COVID-19 were few, public sentiment reflected “Denial and Defiance” - most people didn’t think it was a serious issue, or that their country would be faced with the same severe COVID-19 consequences as China. 

Other stages we identified were “Fear and  Depression” (when the severity of COVID-19 sinks in), “Acceptance” (as society pivots to a new normal), “Compassion and Creativity” (when immediate needs are met, and we start reaching out to support and solve societal issues) and “Resurgence” (as a nation emerges from COVID-19 and starts to rebuild its economy). These stages were by no means definitive, but they serve as a useful guide to codifying general public sentiment at any given point of time to help clients to act in a manner that was relevant to how the public was feeling.

Like the Kubler-Ross model, the Zeno’s public sentiment analysis is by no means linear. Just because one country feels confident that it has the measure of COVID-19 this week, it does not mean new developments won’t set public sentiment back into the “Fear and Depression” stage. 

We saw this when Singapore announced its “circuit breaker” lockdown on April 3rd. Previously lauded for tight controls, our data analysis showed Singapore in close to Stage 4 “Compassion and Creativity” - where overwhelmingly, COVID-19 chatter was focused on social good and helping the less fortunate. On the announcement, however, we saw sentiment immediately plummet back to Stage 2 “Fear and Depression” with many Singaporeans expressing worry and the rush to stock-up on essential items.

On a day-to-day level, there are simply too many variables to predict when sentiment will improve or decline. But there are practical ways that communicators can use data to plan effective responses:

Dig deep into what’s driving sentiment

It’s easy to generalise what is driving sentiment (of course, when Covid-19 cases increase daily, the public sentiment is likely to be “fear and depression”), but a closer look always unearths insights that may help fine-tune communications programme. 

For example, we found positive sentiment drivers in Malaysia and Indonesia to be quite different. In Malaysia, most of the positive sentiment and hopefulness revolved around the bravery of local Covid-19 front liners and support for the sacrifices they were making. The story in Indonesia was different, where local Indonesians expressed their support for global solidarity amidst COVID-19. Armed with these insights, a brand operating in both countries might tailor its approach differently to resonate better with its audiences.

Be audience-specific with brand messages

It’s no secret that COVID-19 affects people differently. This truth was borne out in our sentiment data, which showed that different audience segments showed more or less concern about various issues related to COVID-19. For "parents with young children" - the issue of hygiene and safety and e-learning came up frequently. In the meantime, many “youths” spoke frequently about being bored and looking for ideas of things to do at home. Understanding a specific audience and their sentiment can help ensure a brand’s messages are relevant to their intended audience.

Planning for the long ride

The five stages we identified in our COVID-19 sentiment tracker form a useful framework with which to plan longer term strategy and messages. While we cannot predict how sentiment will shift tomorrow, we can be prepared for each of the roughly five stages of COVID-19 sentiment and map out a communications strategy for each. This starts with understanding your brand’s purpose and its particular relevance to the COVID-19 situation.

One client we’ve counselled throughout the pandemic was a quick service restaurant operator which found its restaurants closed amidst COVID-19 and needing to pivot hard into its delivery service. Our client identified straightaway its purpose to “keep people fed with safe-to-eat food amidst COVID-19.” In the “Fear and Depression” stage, this meant fact-based campaign to educate consumers about new steps the chain was taking to ensure takeaway and delivered food was safe-to-eat, as well as launching a new “contactless” delivery mechanism. In the weeks that followed, the same client would launch food donations to feed those with limited ability to access food as well as a donation drive to enable customers to support the national response to COVID-19.

Our takeaway from this is that there will be no straight path out of COVID-19. This doesn’t mean there is no reason to plan ahead. Quite the opposite, there is every reason to do so. Brands will be judged based on how they act during this crisis, and keeping a thumb on ever-changing sentiment helps to ensure our brands do so with relevance, authenticity and good taste.

This article was published on 5/19/20