Qualitative research: Vigilant against the virus

Editor's note: Nihal Advani is CEO of insights platform QualSights. 

The last two years have been transformative for this country. Pandemic-related restrictions created seismic shifts in consumer behavior, interrupted daily routines and forced consumers to suddenly develop a heightened sense of awareness regarding home cleaning and germ elimination. As the U.S. gradually adjusts to a new normal, consumers are cautiously deciding which pandemic-related cleaning habits they’ll retain for the foreseeable future and which habits they’ll abandon once it’s safe to do so.

To uncover and understand the implications of these shifts in cleaning habits, the QualSights team conducted their own home-cleaning research project. The goal of this study was to identify how cleaning habits and routines had changed since the pandemic and whether those newly formed cleaning routines were permanent. This study also explored the product messaging that best resonated with consumers as well as the prevalence of hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes. 

The QualSights Pandemic Home Cleaning Study surveyed 63 men and women, ranging in ages from 18 to 65, who reside across various areas in the continental United States. QualSights asked participants to complete a series of activities, designed to assess their thoughts and feelings regarding home cleaning. They followed a pre-programmed guide featuring a mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions, all recorded on video and audio.

Leveraging a blend of quantitative questions embedded within the video-recorded responses allowed for authentic insights backed by data regarding the participants’ thoughts on pandemic-related home cleaning. For example, while over half of participants felt “extremely concerned” about the pandemic in the spring of 2020, their concern was downgraded by the summer of 2021 as most participants were “very/somewhat concerned” about the pandemic. The results from the study also indicated that participants’ initial concern was rooted in their daily life being interrupted and constricted by the fear of the unknown. Their current concerns center around well-being for their children and family, as well as the unknown timing of returning to their pre-pandemic lifestyle. 

Here to stay

There were several key takeaways from this study for B2C marketers within the household cleaning products industry. The research indicates that while concerns about the pandemic are waning, the new cleaning habits that consumers developed in response to the threat of COVID-19 are likely here to stay:

  • Consumers say they have more things to clean: Light switches, door handles and our groceries are still getting wiped down daily as part of the cleaning routines. 
  • Cleaning products don’t live under the sink anymore: Clorox and Lysol cleaning wipes are standard staples in homes across the country and they are prominently displayed on counters and in entryways. 
  • Buying in bulk is standard practice: More than half of participants said they’re buying in bulk now to avoid added shopping trips, while one-third of participants conserved products to reduce the need to replace them. 
  • Product claims on stronger protection are prioritized: “Kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria” and ”antibacterial” claims really matter to consumers. People have switched cleaning products to ensure they are getting this type of strong protection.
  • Consumers will bring their own cleaning products on public transportation: Use of public transit is down, as many are wary of cleanliness, but 71% of participants said they’re bringing their own cleaning products if they need to use public transportation.
  • Consumers want to keep their new cleaning habits: 94% of participants say they are “extremely likely” to continue using the new products they have adopted.

The overall theme in responses was that consumers are content to stay home more often than they used to. For example, for those people who worked remotely during the pandemic, a return to the office five days a week is not guaranteed. In fact, if anything, those participants may adopt a hybrid schedule where they would only be in the office a few days a week. The only exception to this new way of life is the way groceries are purchased. Trips to the grocery store remain higher than trips to bars, restaurants or visits to friends and family homes. Additionally, with more time spent at home, 84% of participants claim they are “more mindful” of cleanliness at home than before the pandemic started. 

The impact of such findings is especially important for insights professionals who work in the home-cleaning category. Even though some have reported a decline in cleaning product sales, the study implies that consumers still have an unwavering commitment to keeping their home clean and germ-free.

Delve deep

The QualSights team collected approximately 40 hours of video footage and used AI tools to identify recurring themes and keywords in participant feedback. These qualitative research techniques and analysis tools enabled the team to delve deep into consumer motivation and observe in-the-moment emotional reactions. For any brand interested in conducting similar research, harnessing the power of qualitative data collection centers around these three necessary areas: 

Participation from engaged consumers. Qualitative research presents the opportunity to speak directly with your target audience, either bringing your actual customers to a research project or tapping one of the many firms recruiting willing consumers to share their time. Identifying the right audience ensures the team can weed out the professional survey-takers to speak with brands and allow them to secure meaningful data. 

Mixed-media collection for flexible data capture. From ethnographies, digital interviews, concept tests, screen recording and more, research and marketing teams can modify their qualitative methods to connect with consumers and collect research data through smartphones, laptops, hands-free cameras and more. 

Analysis that goes beyond surface numbers. Insights teams can extrapolate findings from hours of video or transcribed feedback. Analysis of responses includes identifying keywords, themes, sentiment and emotion. The ways consumers shop, use and think about the products in their home and the products they purchase begin to emerge. 

An emotional connection

The home-cleaning study showed that consumers now have a keen awareness of cleaning standards and have also developed an emotional connection to chores that were otherwise considered mundane. Tasks like disinfecting counters, cleaning newly purchased groceries and maintenance cleaning of their home that were once considered optional and performed sporadically are now considered to be mandatory daily tasks to guarantee a healthy home. Because of this hyper-focus on cleanliness, consumers response indicated a preference for product messaging that revolved around antibacterial and germ-killing properties.

The learnings from this study may be especially helpful to home-cleaning brands, as they can help inform the way they market, message and develop home-cleaning products moving forward. 

Cleaning products are not just for the home anymore. One-in-four claim they use a car service but some feel it’s a risky move and take precautions like wiping surfaces, wearing masks and protective clothing and ensuring windows are open for the whole ride (even in the winter). This discovery, paired with wariness of public transportation, provides a takeaway for CPG marketers and the opportunity to elevate messaging on the travel-friendly aspects of their products. 

Emotions are strong and heavily tied to cleaning. The ongoing development of virus variants is leaving people uneasy about what might happen in the future. There is also concern about germ spread and cleanliness for others who are not vaccinated or are health-compromised. These sensitive findings can offer product teams the lens through which to view their messaging, including larger campaigns across social media or advertisements down to small product descriptions. 

An ongoing distrust of strangers remains. The study uncovered that people assume that others may have COVID-19 or they fear people who are not vaccinated. This continues to motivate social distancing and the need for personal space and the continued cleaning routines many have adopted within their home and when they’re out in public. This notion of distrust is yet another implication for CPG marketers and a finding that they will need to navigate with caution.

Adopted new habits and routines

While the pandemic is far from over, it’s clear that consumers across the country have adopted new cleaning habits and routines. Most of them will likely be a permanent shift in consumer behavior. However, as the pandemic evolves, so will consumer cleaning habits. Qualitative research is, and will continue to be, the key to unlocking those frequent changes. Marketers across every category, including the home-cleaning category, can comfortably rely on tech-driven qualitative research methodologies to drive their business forward.