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Emotional distress is certainly nothing new. The World Health Organization reported in January that over 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic forced people into seclusion and released a new and prolonged onslaught of anxiety-provoking news. Now, as citizens grapple with a global recession, high unemployment, a persistent threat of COVID-19, and prolonged loneliness and isolation, it’s reasonable to expect that depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress are on the rise. 

It’s a sobering thought to be sure. And, it turns out, one that marketers and market researchers ought to keep in mind as they seek to better understand and serve their consumers during this global health and economic crisis. Conditions like anxiety and depression, even on a moderate scale, have an impact on consumer behavior, brand perception, and product choices. Recent observations of increases in alcohol consumption, junk food purchases, and hoarding behavior suggest that anxiety may be provoking swings in consumer priorities. 

Market researchers can make educated guesses about what to expect when a pandemic and global recession cause an increase in anxiety and depression. A more effective and actionable approach is to collect high-quality data on consumers’ mental well-being. For a deeper dive on how to conduct market research during the current pandemic, join our webinar on making your research program COVID-19 resilient on May 7th, 2020. 

Measuring Emotional Distress

Psychological distress disrupts connection, productivity, and positive consumer experiences. Understanding the limitations and experience of psychological distress and trauma will be critical to effective experience management in the COVID-19 era. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs established that to be effective parents and community members, productive employees and reliable consumers, people need a baseline level of psychological well-being. Marketers should be sensitive to consumer well-being as they craft their business strategies. 

To support sensitive and effective marketing campaigns, market researchers can track mental well-being as part of their ongoing research. A simple tool for assessing psychological distress is the K6 scale, created and validated as a screener for serious mental illness. As a screener, the K6 is a good, all-purpose indicator of whether a person or population is experiencing debilitating psychological distress or is relatively resilient. It is a short, six-item scale that can be relatively easily added to any survey instrument, and is freely available for public use. It has been translated into multiple languages and replicated in local, national and international studies of health worldwide, providing many benchmarks for understanding consumer and community insights. 

The key initial question in the K6 asks about the incidence of six specific feelings of emotional distress in the past 30 days:

During the past 30 days, about how often did you feel . . .

  1. Depressed
  2. Hopeless
  3. Restless or fidgety
  4. So depressed that nothing could cheer you up
  5. That everything was an effort
  6. Worthless

. . .  All of the time, Most of the time, Some of the time, A little of the time, None of the time? 

This initial question is followed by questions that ask:

  • If any of these feelings were felt more often, less often, or about the same as usual
  • Whether the feelings impaired normal work hours or activities
  • The number of days where normal productivity was reduced
  • How often the respondent saw a doctor for these feelings
  • Whether the feelings were caused by physical conditions

For market researchers looking for efficient results, even asking just the first two questions of the K6 – about feelings and whether they were typical or more/less than usual – can provide a basic understanding of consumers’ mental health status. These two K6 items can be added to ongoing brand trackers, attitudes and usage studies, concept tests, and advertising or message tests with minimal additional respondent burden. 

Turning Mental Health Data Into Action

Previous disasters like the 2004 tsunami, the 9/11 attacks, and the global 2008 recession were all associated with declines in mental health in affected populations. By evaluating the mental well-being of target market populations, brands can better position themselves to care for their customers, and boost brand trust in the process.

Timely information on the psychological distress of your customers can help answer both strategic and tactical questions, such as: 

  • Do your products resonate in times of increased anxiety? 
  • Is your market in the right mental state to absorb your messaging or to buy the products or solutions your company offers? 
  • Should your advertising prioritize lower-order needs (security) or higher-order needs (ego/status, self-actualization)?
  • Does brand trustworthiness trump product convenience right now? 
  • Should your brand signal “self-care” to consumers and help ease emotional unrest?

Understanding the short- and long-term mental health impact of COVID-19 will help companies better understand and care for their customers and potential customers. Taking periodic mental health measures like the K6 will help customize messaging, outreach, and support – and help brands understand how long to continue supportive advertising campaigns even after the immediate crisis period has passed. With these precisely tailored tactics, brands can build stronger relationships with their customers. 

If you have questions about incorporating mental health assessments into your research programs, Qualtrics’ Research Services team can help. You can also join our upcoming webinar: Making your Research Program COVID-19 Resilient. 

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