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Hygiene in the Covid-19 era. How can CPG brands prepare?

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The outbreak of Covid-19 across the world caused key changes in consumer behavior and lifestyle. From shopping habits and purchasing decisions to specific consumption patterns, the pandemic significantly impacted what and how we consume.

One of the areas transformed by the outbreak is consumer's relationship with hygiene. The widely accepted practices of social distancing, increased hand washing, and mask wearing have had a long term impact on how we live, both inside and outside of our homes. These changes are the beginning of a big shift that is likely to influence the innovation pipeline of CPG and healthcare brands. As some of the initial shifts in behavior become habit, now is the time to adjust or widen product offerings. Max Berney, Senior Design Researcher & Strategist from a major CPG company, believes there is an obligation to encourage and support recent lifestyle changes, and offer solutions that meet the emerging hyper-hygienic attitudes outside the home. No need to add how real-time consumer insights can usefully support CPG brands grasp how consumers are experiencing those changes, and how to help them embrace those.

From zero to hero - the rise of hygiene as a lifestyle factor

Before the outbreak and the implementation of lockdown measures, hygiene was important but not at a scale that we've seen in the last five months. That's understandable. But just how much more have consumer priorities changed within this category?

We've seen almost 50% increase in conversations discussing hygiene on social media. Mentions in China started spiking in January, as the news of the novel virus began to spread. The UK and US registered the first significant increase in March and the volume of posts is still higher today than before the lockdown measures and guidelines were introduced in both countries. The two platforms which drive consumer-led conversation in the Western markets are Twitter and Instagram. Facebook, although a prominent channel, is mainly used by corporate accounts; not so much users themselves. In China, Sina Weibo and Little Red Book accounted for almost all consumer-driven discussions of the subject.

It's no surprise that the majority, 70%, of the hygiene topics focused on out-of-home environments. Mentions of hand sanitizers, wipes, gloves, and overall measures likely to boost immunity to the virus drove this result.

Interestingly, the way consumers discussed hygiene at home has changed significantly. We looked at spaces and rooms mentioned most prominently in conversations discussing "cleaning at home". The differences between chats from before the pandemic and today are striking.

In the UK and US, bathroom and kitchen were two equally important spaces to keep clean, accounting for 44% and 39% of social conversation respectively. This changed drastically as the reports of the outbreak spread, with kitchen representing more than 70% of posts and bathroom reducing to 15%.

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UK and US conversations about hygiene at home, filtered by room. Source: Radarly

China presented an even more polarizing picture. Bathroom hygiene accounted for 75% of the conversation before the pandemic. During the outbreak, the hallway and kitchen were the most prominent spaces, representing 33% and 25% of social mentions respectively.

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China conversations about hygiene at home, filtered by room. Source: Radarly

Cultural background and political context impact consumer relationship with hygiene

The internet might have removed geographical barriers to share and access content, but location and cultural context are still very important when it comes to consumer behavior. At a high level, we see many similarities between how residents of China, US, and the UK reacted to the lifestyle changes enforced by the pandemic.  However, the motivations and reasons for change couldn't have been more different when looking at specificities.

Compliance was widely embraced by the Chinese consumers. They saw following guidelines as their way to contribute to the overall success of the country's fight against the virus. Decisions on hygiene and social distancing were largely accepted and not questioned. In fact, the nation-wide efforts to minimize the impact of the virus changed the overall understanding of individual success in China. To an extent, UK consumers followed a similar pattern, with the vast majority accepting the imposed changes. However, the contrast in how the US public approached the issues is significant. Marches about individual freedom, protests to oppose business closures, or refusals to wear face masks have been a stark reminder of how culturally different people in these locations are.

Product requirements dictated by the new lifestyle

There are overarching themes reflecting unmet needs of consumers around the world, particularly when it comes to hand sanitizers. Bad smell, stickiness, presence of alcohol, and environmental impact are consistent topics discussed in China, US and the UK. As a product, hand sanitizers are mainly used outside, so portability and size are very important. Key occasions mentioned by consumers included public transport, parks, shops, and protests - the latter being particularly important for those based in the UK and US.

Consumers in China highlighted their preferences for products in large containers,  used to refill multiple smaller bottles for handbags or car glove compartments. Two reasons drove this: minimizing shopping trips, and environmental impact.

As gyms and leisure centers re-open, hygiene is the major concern for consumers thinking of re-joining. Many worry that wipes or cleaning equipment provided by the venues might not be enough, and so using their own and trusted products is seen as an alternative. Here again, convenience is key if a product is to fit seamlessly fit into a new routine.

A topic which deeply polarizes people is gloves. Seen as a barrier and protection, particularly for people with sensitive skin, they were also perceived as a potential source of false security. Some of the audience saw them as an enabler in spreading the virus as those wearing gloves might let their guard down and be less careful. Similar patterns were observed in the UK at the beginning of the pandemic, when masks were first suggested as a part of protective equipment for consumers.

Not all key concerns are new but many have accelerated

As brands work on optimizing their existing offer, there are several factors worth keeping in mind during the innovation process.

Consumers around the world, but China in particular, pay attention to the potential negative impact of cleaning detergents and protective products on their skin. Sensitive skin and skin conditions such as eczema prevent many from using currently available wipes or hand sanitizers, presenting a opportunity for brands willing to meet those needs. Even consumers who didn't consider skin conditions as a barrier to purchase are starting to now, as the prolonged use of many currently available products causes their skin to dry.

Environmental impact remains top of mind for many, with options for reusable packaging being a popular choice. Concerns over recyclable and biodegradable materials are gaining traction again. The trend started accelerating before the outbreak and it will continue to have an impact in the next normal. Animal rights are still one of the key values consumers prioritize and as such, searches for products which are not tested on animals are prominent.

Packaging will play a significant role in the post-COVID reality. Hygiene products were not among the categories perceived to have an impact on packaging before the pandemic. However today, and likely in the future, it remains a high to moderate consideration.

Overall, feelings of insecurity and lack of appropriate protection are persistent, driving negative sentiment of the hygiene social debate. The outside environment is key here but concerns of inappropriate or reckless behaviour at home are also present. This is particularly the case for people who live in a house share, student accommodation or similar venues.

Reimagining the future

The last few months showed us that innovative organizations who truly understood the shifting needs of their consumers were able to react and, to an extent, adjust to this new reality. Key in this transformation have been the ability to distinguish between short term behavioral tweaks and long-term impacts on habitual changes.

According to Max Berney"We're often asked if these healthy hygiene habits will continue. In short, they likely will not if we do not support them with product experiences optimized for the shifting behaviors".

We've entered an era of no-touch, socially-distanced, and hyper-hygienic consumption. CPG and healthcare brands have an opportunity to embrace this change and drive their innovation process with solutions representing this new reality.

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