In a Pandemic We Buy What We Know | HBR

1 MIN READ by Chelsea Galoni, Gregory S. Carpenter, and Hayagreeva Rao  |   5 MINS READ December 7, 2020

Experts have predicted that the pandemic would lead to seemingly-contradictory surges in sales for both health food and junk food. What’s at the root of this apparent paradox? New research suggests that the presence of a contagious disease elicits powerful emotions of fear and disgust, which push consumers towards more familiar food options — whether that’s a kale salad or a Big Mac. In this piece, the authors describe how this effect has driven purchasing behavior trends during the pandemic, as well as the implications of these trends for how consumer businesses should think about marketing and product strategy decisions right now.

Back in May, Unilever’s CEO predicted that consumers would eat healthier during the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the CEO of McDonald’s remains confident they’ll return to Big Macs and other familiar favorites.

Certainly, both can’t be right.

Or can they?

Organic and healthy food sales are in fact surging — but so are sales of cookies and salty snacks. After years of struggling to win over increasingly health-conscious consumers, well-known brands such as Oreos and Doritos have been selling more than ever in the last several months, and McDonald’s Drive Thru business is booming.

So what’s going on?

Evolutionary psychology offers a simple explanation: humans are wired to feel powerful emotions in response to contagious diseases, and these emotions affect consumer behavior in surprising ways. Our recent large-scale analyses and lab experiments confirmed that simultaneous surges in sales of both Big Macs and kale salads are logical expressions of two key emotions that consumers are experiencing right now: disgust and fear.

We’re Wired to Avoid Disease

Past research has shown that people react to indications of contagious disease with disgust: we instinctively move away from someone sneezing in a crowded train car; we avoid people coughing violently on the street.

But it’s not just a matter of being repulsed. The possibility of contracting a contagious disease also elicits fear and a sense of loss of control, pushing us to seek the familiar and avoid the foreign.

To better understand the links between disease, emotion, and purchasing behaviors, we performed two large empirical analyses using data from the CDC, Google Flu Trends, and Nielsen, as well as four lab experiments examining how the presence of disease affected both emotional state and household purchases in four product categories: paper towels, junk food, soup, and batteries. In our experiments, we had participants read about either a contagious disease (the flu) or a non-contagious disease (heart failure), and then tested their preferences for familiar versus unknown products.

Fear and Disgust Impact Purchasing Behavior

The results confirmed our hypothesis: thinking about a contagious disease increased both fear and disgust, and in response to these emotions, the participants attempted to regain control by seeking out the familiar brands they knew and trusted. Without even realizing it, people have been doing whatever they can to assert control over a chaotic world — and that extends to their decisions in the food aisle.

Specifically, our empirical analyses found that households bought more of all the products we studied when disease was more present in their area, but they bought more familiar products at disproportionately higher rates. These findings can help to explain recent purchasing trends.

Booming organic foods sales may be appear to be at odds with long lines at the McDonald’s Drive Thru, but our analysis suggests that these two seemingly-inconsistent trends are in fact reflections of the same emotional state: In the face of a contagious disease that elicits fear and disgust, consumers turn to the most familiar options (whether that’s health food or junk food).


Even when there are no rational reasons to turn down unfamiliar options, our findings suggest that consumers are increasingly favoring familiar brands in many different product categories. For example, while people have been stocking up on more soup across the board during the pandemic, sales of more familiar soup brands such as Campbell’s have risen disproportionately. Similarly, our analyses found that right now, people are more likely to put traditional Oreos in their cart, rather than the trying out the latest new flavor. In the face of so much constant fear, an unfamiliar Oreo seems to be a risk that many consumers are simply unwilling to take.

Marketers, Take Note

What do these trends mean for brand marketers?

For one, while innovation is generally a good thing, right now might not the best time to start getting creative with consumer products. While you may be excited about advertising the latest potato chip or ice cream flavor, you might be better off waiting for a time when consumers are feeling a little less fearful.

On the product strategy side, our findings demonstrate the importance of focus. Restaurants and manufacturers may be facing capacity constraints due to social distancing requirements, but those limitations can also have a positive effect: they force organizations to concentrate on the products that consumers value most. The most successful companies have focused resources on their traditional bestsellers to meet increasing demand for these familiar products, rather than investing in new product lines or sales strategies. For example, after rolling back to a limited menu with just its most-cherished products, McDonald’s reversed a decline in sales that began in 2013, and growth in its stock price has outpaced the S&P 500 since March.

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