COVID Has Changed Everything and Nothing, For Those with Chronic Health Concerns

chronic health conditions bottle of pills

If the past seven months have taught us anything, it’s that health is our most valuable asset. Particularly for individuals living with chronic health conditions at higher risk for having COVID-19 complications, such as asthma, cardiomyopathy, vasculitis, and Crohn’s, 2020 has both amplified health and safety precautions, and intensified the relationships these individuals have with healthcare professionals, pharmacy staff, and brands.

Brand Loyalty Above All Else

Product shortages, brand switching, and online shopping have all become routine during the COVID-19 pandemic; many consumers have been forced to be more open to trying brands they had not previously due to preferred brands being unavailable or more expensive. This has been the case for food, drinks, cleaning supplies, and clothing; however, in the case of over the counter (OTC) and prescription medication, consumer behavior has been more inelastic and inflexible in brand switching. Particularly for individuals living with chronic health conditions, our research suggests there is little deviation in medication choice and purchase channels.

Brand loyalty for medication has been heightened: consumers know what works for them and their condition, and stick to it. For individuals whose health is a daily concern or consideration, a global pandemic is not the time to be adventurous in their medication choice. Most consumers purchase medication from brands they know and trust, or that are recommended to them by a healthcare professional. In a recent qualitative study conducted by Maru/Matchbox, very few consumers with chronic health conditions indicate switching medication brands due to product shortages. If their desired OTC medication brand is out of stock, these individuals go to another store or order online, rather than try a new brand. For these consumers, the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19 from visiting multiple stores does not outweigh worries about trying a new or unfamiliar medication brand, given their concern over the complications the switch could present to their health.

“[If out of chosen medication] I would go to another store. Luckily, there’s like three different stores on my way home so I would just go to another store and hopefully they have it. Otherwise, I think if all the stores were out, I would probably, if possible, try to order it online.” – Chronic health condition consumer

The relationship consumers have with medication brands is stronger than ever. Smaller brands may have a more difficult time making strides in the market, as category leaders have solidified brand trust and loyalty among their customer base. Leading medication brands now play a much bigger role in consumers’ lives; these brands offer stability and consistency and reduce concerns of any additional complications or symptom setbacks due to medication choice during a turbulent time.

Online Shopping in the COVID-19 Era

Based on Maru/Matchbox’s recent COVID-19 tracker, 1 in 3 individuals are more likely to shop online in recent months than prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, a trend that is expected to continue into fall and winter. However, many consumers with chronic health conditions are skeptical of purchasing medication online; despite often buying clothes, household items, food, and other items online, they are hesitant to purchase prescription and OTC medication through online retailers, especially for prescriptions.

“[Preference for in-person medication shopping] I like to ask the salespeople questions. A lot of the websites will have the chat option, I don’t care for it.” – Chronic health condition consumer

Similar to the relationships consumers have with their preferred medication brands, preference for buying medication at brick and mortar retailers hinges on the relationships consumers have with pharmacists and/or store employees. Particularly for prescription medications, many wish to talk to the pharmacist about recommendations and efficacy. Online pharmacies may continue to have hurdles to overcome, as online chat tools and recommendations do not suffice for many consumers with health concerns.

The pandemic has minimized online shopping aversion, however, for routine medication purchases of well-known OTC brands from trusted online sites (e.g., Amazon). For trusted and familiar brands, the early stock shortages experienced in March and April prompted some consumers to begin purchasing OTC medication from retailers online.

“Originally when COVID started I was doing it online with the Vitamin Shoppe or Walmart. Now sometimes I go in the store or sometimes I do curbside. It just kind of depends. As long as it’s something that I’ve already used before, online is preferred. It’s just easier.” – Chronic health condition consumer

Trusted OTC brands may have an easier time converting consumers to online platforms because of their brand loyalty and strong relationships. As the pandemic continues, and particularly as the weather gets cold in many regions, consumers may be less willing to leave the house; this presents an opportunity for OTC brands to connect with and target customers virtually and help drive online sales.

Emily Hunter is a Research Associate for the Consumer Goods and Services team at Maru/Matchbox. Contributions to this article were also made by Erica Ruyle, SVP of Qualitative Insights, Jess Collins, Research Director, Consumer Goods and Services and Vik Sood, SVP, Consumer Goods and Services. 

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