An exploration of COVID-19 through human stories

24 Mar 2020

Why insight into the ordinary is vital in this extraordinary time


We hear it so often now; we are living in unprecedented times. The corona virus and social distancing measures are having an extraordinary impact on our lives today and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

To help uncover insights into these strangest of times we’ve run a project, sampling millions of social media posts and hundreds of diverse blog and news sites, where people are discussing their rich and varied experiences online, across the UK, US, Italy and China. In just two days we’ve been able to immerse ourselves in conversations spanning social media, parenting, care, working from home, science, public health, wellbeing and travel and to draw out key insights on a truly global scale. We believe no other approach can provide this breadth of scope yet depth of insight at such speed.

Our key conclusion from this analysis is that while these times are extraordinary and also disturbing, the key insights we need come from the ordinary and yet richly inspiring stories people are sharing whilst living their lives and learning to get by. Importantly, this insight comes from the spontaneous things people are saying and doing day to day - perhaps not those things they would choose to say if asked specific questions about their experiences in more traditional consumer research.

To navigate the richness that we uncovered, we have identified 10 big behavioural themes, each one with multiple sub themes and each one a window into people’s experiences that we believe can serve as inspiration to help us navigate resourcefully this unprecedented experience. 

Below is a summary of these 10 big behavioural themes. You can also click here to request a full, complimentary copy of the report.


From what we have read, now more than ever seems to be a time for ..

Talking is probably the best known version of therapy.  Whether into thin air; the not always responsive air of therapists' rooms or endlessly into social media.  We're all doing it right now.

Second guessing and speculating
Imagination and invention is a resource to manage risk and uncertainty.  From one day to the next, when dealing with unprecedented degrees of uncertainty, at every level, then speculation is rife.

Breaking news – “we are following every update
Knowledge is power (or the illusion of it).  Hanging on to every headline, tuning in to every update, streaming dedicated news resources to our phones .. forewarned is forearmed ..

Revelling in the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ and stirring the pot?!
Excitement creates energy.  Disasters can incite their own weirdly attractive state of melodrama.  Gossip streams & fake news are perhaps a way to find the buzz needed to rise to previously unknown experiences and the challenges they present.

Spinning apocalyptic prophecies
Fearing the worst can be oddly comforting.  Like watching horror movies.  The experience of escalating to an intense experience of fear then coming back down to 'normal' equates to a self-soothing experience on a chemical as well as notional level.


Denial is a primitive, deep rooted, psychological defence mechanism. It typifies early childhood experience "It's not happening lalala". One of the most fascinating aspects of adult denial is how complicatedly inventive we can become in finding strategies for denial.

Boiling it down to simple maths
So much of the discussion around the corona virus is focused on cold hard numbers and statistics .. all squared away in an orderly fashion that belies the reality of our experience.

Confusion, defiance and parties in the park
Much talk of chaos and anarchy.  We will refuse to go quietly.  The idea of this and the attendant measures required are a fundamental challenge to our liberty.

Insisting there's no evidence and it’s all been over blown ..
A very overt and deeply classic form of denial.  This literally is not happening.  Typically, here, discussion revolves around comparisons with colds or common flu and a theory of fake news.

Casting blame and aspersions
Blaming is well understood as a cognitive distortion.  This is all happening - but by assigning blame I can somehow make it go away, give it back to where it came from.  We saw here some shocking depth of prejudice at a stated and perhaps, more worryingly even, also subliminal level



escapism. n. the tendency to escape from the real world to the delight or security of a fantasy world.

The eternal reliability of cake and prosecco
Comfort eating is a known phenomenon. Comfort foods are a 'real thing'; foods that incur a psychologically pleasing state.  Here, we see shoppers bulk buy snacks, while a French comedian muses that "we will come out of this not better but fatter" ..

A continued fascination with how the other half lives
Online discussions around celebrities coping may emphasise we are in this together & be iconic and instructive. At the time, they serve to distance & deny, pushing this whole lived experience back into the domain of fantasy entertainment (where it does not need to be dealt with).

Here we all are, watching from home
“Put the telly on”.  A metaphor for escapism if ever there was one.  Stories of Netflix bingeing, or holing up with boxed sets, along with of course a sharp rise in online gaming and pornography have all been mentioned.  At the same time, hearteningly, record book sales are apparently a thing too.



‘Hunkering down’ is an old Scottish expression for sitting tight and low to ride out a storm.  Holding on hard to what we know is a very human reaction to adversity.

Growing up (even while feeling like a little kid)
A need to be grown up while your internal narrative runs closer to that of a toddler.  This reminds of our collective responsibility to the plight of parents trying to hold everyone together right now.

Keeping calm (easy to say!)
The 'keep calm & carry on' mantra had already long lost its way in popular culture in favour of the far more relatable 'now panic & freak out'.  Most narrative online we are seeing suggests we are in truth swinging uncontrollably between the two.

Recalibrating (like really, what really matters?)
Getting a bit of perspective.  Distancing ourselves.  We are having to take a step back, recalibrate and work out what is really important.  While it may be easy to say, it's not easy to do.

Telling the tale for posterity – “I was here in COVID-19 ..”
I was here.  The idea of who we are or where we are now as somehow indelible.  The notion of leaving your mark.  Chroniclers abound, diarising verbally & visually, an attempt to lock the moment?

Holding blindly to faith and hope
Holding on to blind faith.  Hope springs eternal.  Most of us hold to some kind of belief system to keep us going.



Deploying the metaphor of wartime vs peacetime. The sense that our peacetime has been shockingly shattered with a strange distorted juxtaposition of today’s peacetime reality with wartime imagery and language ..

Bolstering spirits with a revival of a 'Blitz' mentality
Wartime stories - like Greek Mythologies  - are a way to inspire ideas of hope and courage.  Invoking the metaphor of war and romantic ideals associated can elevate our experience.

Going up to the front
So many owe so much to so few... This image of a notional frontline and the concurrent emotions of pride and humility it leaves over for those of us in the notional 'backline' plays its part in engendering a sense of responsibility and order in a time of crisis.




Doctrines of mindfulness that encourage us to live in the moment fully have never felt more pertinent.  There is the new sense that this is no longer a rehearsal and we are now living in a collective moment of truth.

Getting that they are ALL our family ..
A proverb says "In time of test family is best". Yet crisis times can create concepts of kinship that surpass blood ties and bind seemingly disparate individuals together in a tight knot of support.

No shit !  It's time to say it like it is
Time for the turning of the tables and calling out the righteous.  Drastic times call for drastic measures.  Time to tell it like it is and call out prejudice, hypocrisy.

Saying thank you .. (and everything else that matters)
Before it’s too late ..It's better to say too much than too little.  Crises dissolve cool facades rapidly and force us to confront the feelings we have for people who are important.  For fear of losing them - the need to tell them how we feel.


In Architecture of Happiness Alain de Botton talks about the conceptual role of home to stabilise us with "the important truths" which "distracted and irresolute, we have trouble holding onto".

This one is all about the stability of home truth. The kaleidoscope of colour represented by snapshots of ordinary but wonderful human moments in all this panic allows us to surround ourselves with insights into our extra-ordinary human experience and powerful home truths.

A collective "Bless" - for all that makes us lovely and human
Stripping people back to what makes them human binds us all in collective empathy.  This crisis is rife with glimpses of relatable human moments which can feel strangely comforting, as if we received a silent hug in return.

A certain dark humour
They say laughter is the best medicine.  Social media usage analysis in the last month has noted that the emoji most commonly associated with the coronavirus has been crying laughing followed closely by crying loudly.  This says it all really.

An ode to potatoes, pasta and toilet paper
The psychology of hoarding is fascinating.  Our fascination with it also.  This recent vision of the plain and particular role of accumulating to manage distress has been revelatory.  (Not to mention inherent humour associated with the idea of a significant attachment to mundane items like potatoes.)



Philosophers explore the idea of subject vs. object in relationships; the need we all have to feel recognised as - the responsibility we all have to recognise others as - a subject.  This is fundamental to achieving an ideal of meaningful community.

Please share / thanks for sharing
With physical contact literally impossible we turn to the virtual exchange of heartfelt emotion and social media really comes into its own - holding us tight in this vast collective now.

Pitching in heartily
The ideal of coming together in the face of adversity has powered armies & protected communities since Doomsday.  From whole countries to companies & banks to local communities & neighbours, ‘rallying round’ stories abound

Needing our neighbours more than ever
The irony is not lost on us that just when we need each other most is when we cannot be together.  In isolation has come an immensely encouraging resurrection in the idea of community & good old fashioned neighbourliness.

Knights on scooters who will deliver us from evil
A comforting expression of this idea of community during isolation is being able to literally see this whole infrastructure of distribution and delivery surround us that forms the invisible ties that do connect us all together nevertheless.

Repurposing and giving - with love
A Robin Hood-esque and really refreshing redistribution of resources has sprung up spontaneously and has given a sense of real purpose in adversity that is very motivating

Not waiting to be asked
We are self isolating. This is an extraordinary idea.  The clinical vocabulary coupled with the human implications conjured up.  This is all about the idea of collective responsibility & personal sacrifice.


The power of positive thinking as a psychological tool is well covered.  Its secret perhaps lies in its intrinsic practicality.  This is all about the stuff of everyday life. It IS about sweating the small stuff – little things to weave into the everyday, that are explicitly enjoyable as well as inherently good.

Being crafty, creative and canny with resources
An outpouring of creativity as the new flavour of this pandemic experience. About finding occupation perhaps ... or perhaps more about seeing time and place now through a different lens; instilling some sense of the ideal of sabbatical into the reality of confinement.

Daily doses and the idea of 'psychological immunity'
Practical tips for daily life change hands with evangelical zeal.  A focus on immunity is unsurprising but interesting discourse is elevating mindfulness narrative that is already well peddled to another level with the idea of psychological immunity

Saying "When it's all over, we will .."
The human survival mechanism has us looking into the future to save us folding up in the reality of looking at the present.  Today's on line chat is cheerfully rife with upbeat discussions of what we are looking forward to.

The reasons to be cheerful ..
A bit of grin & bear it, a bit of come & share it, You're welcome we can spare it, yellow socks.

Ian Dury's 'Reasons to be cheerful' could have been written for now. An explosive eruption to celebrate the tiny things that get us out of bed.


Projecting forward into the future is a version of a psychological defence mechanism most of us use when what we up are against in the here and now gets uncomfortable.

Imagining some kind of a hereafter
Since forever people have needed to know what happens next? A massive version of are we there yet? Speculation about life after the coronavirus is fed by a vision of Wuhan slowly emerging from the other side of this abyss.

Revelations - We are seeing fish again!
An inclination to find in every cloud a silver lining .. Commentary about seeing fish in previously murky waters of Venice canals or the impact of planes being on the tarmac and not in the air can help to create a sense of purpose to all this.

Being able to change - ushering in new values and new rules
Stephen Hawking said “intelligence is our ability to adapt to change”. Evolution experts claim humankind is particularly adaptive. Yet changing our individual behaviour can be a real toughie. This area speaks to the rapid pace of change in life today.

The mother of all invention ..
Necessity breeds invention. When the going gets tough. Sidestepping protocol to rapidly develop treatments, vaccines, switching manufacturing capability to produce antibac in lieu of perfumes, raising from new hospitals .. are living proof of this truth.

This summary is a glimpse of the key insights and human stories contained within the analysis and each of these 10 areas. In the coming days and weeks, we will be running more analysis to share with our clients.

If you would like to request a full, complimentary copy of this report please click here

Written by Sophie Wright
28 years brand building experience gained client-side, as an agency director and working as an independent. Sophie is Strategy Director at

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