Consumers in the US display a mix of eagerness and caution about returning to various pre-lockdown behaviors, according to research from The Harris Poll. Catharine P. Taylor, WARC’s US commissioning editor, breaks out some of the findings.

Fear of resuming normal activity is now colliding with the desire to go shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, dine out, and see friends, according to new US analysis from research firm The Harris Poll, as presented at a recent meeting of the CMO Global Growth Council’s Global Leadership Coalition on COVID-19.

The Council – a body featuring some of the industry’s top talent from around the world – is a joint venture between the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and Cannes Lions (a sister company of WARC). The objective of the Leadership Coalition is “to be the force for action that will help chief marketers shape intelligent practices and provide functional guidance for managing through the COVID-19 crisis.”

A nation at a crossroads

As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, The Harris Poll has continually been asking a representative sample of US adults about several key topics. The results demonstrate enduring concerns, but also some shifting attitudes as the weeks go by.

The research, for example, points to a desire to resume regular activities, but John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, told senior marketing leaders at the Coalition meeting that they will have to navigate a complex web of evolving restrictions and behaviors as consumers tiptoe back out into the world.

“We have to understand that not every state is going to come online uniformly. You have to also understand that not every American is going to come back and resume their normal activities in the same way,” he explained.

Currently, fear still pervades the popular psyche, despite the appearance of green shoots of optimism. Since mid-March, The Harris Poll’s research shows:

  • A greatly increased fear of dying – which moved from 27% to 50%.
  • The amount of people who are not leaving their homes because of COVID-19 rose from 76% to 82%.
  • Fear of losing employment has remained roughly steady, at about 55%.
  • Forty percent of people agree they won’t feel comfortable re-entering public life until a vaccine is found.

This fear is translating into a number of consumer behaviors:

  • “Green Acres” syndrome: One trend identified by Gerzema is “Green Acres” syndrome, which is leading urbanites to reconsider their living situations.

    The proof? Some 39% of city-dwellers have thus considered moving to a less densely populated area, and 43% of that group have recently browsed real estate websites with that aim in mind.
  • Home improvement: Many of the people who don’t want to move are reconsidering the state of their living space. Almost 20%, for instance, would like to purchase new furniture or appliances.

    As Gerzema noted, Americans are asking, “What can we do to optimize [our homes] in case we have to go in and shelter again?”
  • Working from home for the long term: Most people don’t show a great interest in returning to the office any time soon.

    More than 80% agree that employers need to phase out open floor plans, and allow people to work remotely either until they feel comfortable re-entering the workplace, or until COVID-19 ceases to be a threat.

    This sentiment has only increased over time. In late March, 63% of survey participants said they’d go back to the office within a month of the curve flattening; as of early May, that figure stood at only 49%.

Consumers see a long and winding road back

Even as fear is driving a lot of decisions, Gerzema noted that consumers’ emotions aren’t completely governed by it.

“We notice desires emerging, because we actually see pent up demand building across categories. We call this ‘revenge spending’. We believe that there is a pressure cooker emerging inside American households,” he said.

In the six weeks between March 30 and May 10, The Harris Poll also found growing interest in going on vacation (29%), buying new clothes (25%) or a car (19%), and attending a concert or sporting event (15%). More broadly, only 37% of interviewees are not planning any sort of purchase once businesses reopen, down from 51% during the March 30 research.

But consumers realize that building up their comfort levels with resuming activity is a long-term process. Upon being asked when they would think about doing a variety of activities – such as going out to dinner, working out at a gym class, or taking public transportation – the majority said it would take about six months.

Marketers should lift the “curtain of fear”

Gerzema said the role of marketers “is to lift the curtain of fear” – that is, reckoning with consumer misgivings and offering reassurance as Americans look to go back into the world.

He identified five ways that marketers could help with the process of easing people back into the marketplace:

  • Focus on early adopters, who are more likely to re-engage first: Different market segments and demographics are showing varied comfort levels with resuming activity.

    Men, for instance, are more likely to feel comfortable staying in a hotel than women in the relative near term, as are those with a household income of $75k+, and members of Gen X. Tailoring hotel messaging to these groups should thus create an opening.

    “The first thing that we're going to see is there are going to be early adopters that are going to set the tone for the mass market,” Gerzema said.
  • Look for, and respond to, shifts in emphasis among categories and transactional platforms: While personal care products have gone through a dip as consumers spend more time at home, some 27% of people surveyed expect to spend more on the category when the pandemic abates. While the data suggests that slightly more than half of consumers plan to shop online for clothing going forwards, a further 15% anticipate doing more in stores once the COVID-19 threat recedes.
  • Focus on safety and partner across the value chain: Extreme cleaning of a retail facility gives consumers even more comfort (57%) than a vaccine, presenting one way in which retailers can take control of the customer experience.

    However, Gerzema cautioned that in complex customer value chains such as travel, a cross-category approach is warranted whereby hotels, airlines and ground transportation should be working together to provide that feeling of safety.

    “One of the things that we should talk about is how can we look at cross-category behavior and find ways that we can design either uniform standards or guidelines for marketers to be working together to be creating this sense of safety,” Gerzema added.

  • Prepare for “blended” habits that combine old and new behaviors: Seventy percent of consumers say they will return to buying groceries at the supermarket after the crisis is over, while their interest in delivery and pickup will decline.

    Some of the behaviors acquired during the Coronavirus outbreak are likely to continue, however, even if to a lesser degree. Said Gerzema, “Another part of this puzzle is trying to understand which of these behaviors are more lasting [for the] long term, and which of the others are going to snap back.”
  • Leverage high levels of consumer trust to improve brand image: Corporate America is getting high marks for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a majority of people giving credit to categories such as groceries (71%), restaurants (64%), technology (59%) and pharma (also 59%) for their efforts.

    Especially in categories that only months ago were perceived negatively – like technology – this creates an opportunity to reset brand reputations. “This is really telling us, not unlike World War II, that Americans are actually looking to companies to step in and to be leaders,” Gerzema said.

    “They accept their leadership, and they're looking for them to mobilize and provide solutions.”

    Indeed, the tech sector, probably more than any other, is emblematic of depicting how much attitudes have changed. An Axios/Harris survey from 2019, for example, ranked “privacy of data” as the most important way that a company could make a difference, with 69% believing companies should address it.

    Now, 81% of people say they want tech companies to trace Coronavirus cases on their behalf – and 65% would support a registry to track whether their neighbors had tested positive.

To learn more about what the Global CMO Leadership Coalition on COVID-19 is doing to support chief marketers around the world, click here

If you are a CMO and intereste in participating in the Leadership Coalition, please reach out to ANA executive vice president Nick Primola at 

Members of the Coalition include the following marketing leaders: Zaid Al-Qassab, Channel 4; Dean Aragon, Shell; Alysia Borsa, Meredith; Fiona Carter, AT&T; David Dancer, Inspire; Norman de Greve, CVS Health; Mathilde Delhoume, LVMH; Morgan Flatley, McDonald’s; Rick Gomez, Target; George Hammer, IBM; Rand Harbert, State Farm; Jodi Harris, AB InBev; Alicia Hatch, Deloitte Digital; Maurice Herrera, Avis Budget Group; Chris Hollander, Panera Bread; Adrienne Ingoldt, Jack in the Box; Amardeep Khalon, GSK; SY Lau, Tencent; Alison Lewis, Kimberly-Clark; Greg Lyons, Beverages, North America, PepsiCo; Antonio Lucio, Facebook; Marcel Marcondes, Anheuser-Busch; Kirk McDonald, Xandr; Rahul Malhotra, Shell; Chirs Moloney, Brinks Home Security; Michelle Peluso, IBM; Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard; Tamara Rogers, GSK; Peggy Fang Rowe, Marriott; Meredith Verdone, Bank of America; Deborah Wahl, General Motors; Hunter Zhang, Tencent

In addition to Primola, ANA members of the Coalition are: Bob Liodice, CEO, and Meg Wubbenhorst, VP, Program Lead, CMO Practice. 

Additional partners include Jeremy Kees, Villanova University and Fiorenza Plinio, Cannes Lions International and industry leaders Rita Ferro, President, Advertising Sales, The Walt Disney Company; Jann Schwarz, Global Director, The B2B Institute, LinkedIn; Gayle Troberman, CMO, iHeartMedia; Lorraine Twohill, CMO, Google.