Louise Pollock is the president and founder of Pollock Communications, an independent food, health and wellness public relations agency in New York City. Pollock has more than 25 years of experience helping clients develop and implement strategic marketing programs.

As the food industry and the world in general were planning for 2020, no one could have imagined that we were on the cusp of one of the most challenging times in history. The impact of COVID-19 has been monumental, transforming every aspect of our daily lives, including how and where we eat, work and play. With heightened concern for health and wellness, and the reality of widespread financial hardship caused by the pandemic, consumers are rethinking every purchase.
Decisions have been impacted by fears of illness and economic uncertainty, among other drivers. In addition, stay-at-home orders, slow reopening of the economy and strict social distancing rules have drastically changed consumer purchasing behaviors and habits, likely for the long term. According to data from Earnest Research, sales in the travel sector declined 85% for the week ending on April 1 compared with the same time last year, while grocery sales soared as people began cooking at home.

Understanding how the novel coronavirus has affected consumers is one of the biggest challenges facing food manufacturers and marketers today. It’s imperative that food companies monitor this constantly evolving shift in the consumer mindset and continually adapt to these changes in order to stay relevant during these unprecedented times and beyond.

Permission granted by Louise Pollock

Many companies have already transitioned their business models and marketing efforts, giving us a glimpse of what success might look like into the future. It’s evident that a shift to digital is mandatory, with more and more consumers spending additional time online. According to Fohr.co data from April 2020, average phone screen time among Americans has increased by over 18%. However, digital campaigns need to be relevant, authentic and considerate of the greater good in order to connect with “COVID-conscious” consumers.
Below are tips from the food and beverage marketing experts at Pollock Communications for building digital communities that foster a virtual connection and brand loyalty to last beyond the pandemic.
Survival of the Fittest
After months of staying at home, consumers have become even more accustomed to shopping and spending time online. Food companies must be willing to adapt to the new consumer mindset or risk losing business. Those companies who can’t or won’t transition to digital platforms and COVID-conscious campaigns to keep connected with consumers may not survive in the long run. With social distancing still in place, celebrations and events have become virtual occasions. Here’s a look at how some food and beverage brands have successfully adapted to continue to engage users: 

Cinco de Mayo – Fans were understandably disappointed that this traditional Mexican holiday fell on Taco Tuesday during stay at home orders this year. Taco Bell adapted and engaged its target audience by offering the “At Home Taco Bar” available via delivery and contactless drive-thru locations nationwide, giving fans the perfect recipe to recreate their favorite tacos from home for family dinners or virtual parties. Other restaurants and chains followed suit with DIY cooking kits inspired by menu favorites. Avocados from Mexico also took the celebration online with daily prizes for the best use of pantry items to create #HomemadeCinco guacamole.

Mother’s Day Vrunch (virtual brunch) – Smirnoff partnered with celebrity Laverne Cox to provide tips for hosting a virtual brunch, including Smirnoff-inspired cocktail recipes, twerking instructions and a pop culture terminology quiz for a celebration full of laughs. The virtual celebration not only drove awareness of the brand’s new seltzer but created a fun and engaging way for families to bond from afar on Mother’s Day.

International Tea Day – Most Americans have canceled or postponed travel plans indefinitely due to the pandemic, so the Tea Council of the USA decided to take tea drinkers on a virtual trip around the world on Instagram to celebrate International Tea Day. The digital campaign engaged tea lovers by sharing the journey and efforts of tea plantation workers around the world, from #PlantToCup. At a time when consumers couldn’t venture out, this celebration offered tea fans a virtual escape to bring them closer to the roots of their favorite beverage.

Authenticity Matters
Successful shifts in marketing campaigns will depend heavily on the authenticity of the effort. The above examples worked well because the experiences were true to the brand identity and its customer base. Brands should attempt to keep audiences entertained, but in a way that is relevant to the brand’s personality. Brands must remain true to who they are and what they represent to their valued customers. Venturing into other areas will appear disingenuous and put-off consumers. Also, marketers must continue to monitor current news and events and adjust efforts as necessary, since the situation remains fluid and evolves rapidly. Being sensitive to consumer concerns is paramount in building and keeping trust and loyalty.
For the Greater Good
It’s human nature to want to help others, especially in times of crisis. We’ve seen healthcare workers travel to different states to help hard-hit hospitals and volunteers assisting with food distribution at community centers. Conversely, we’ve seen the backlash against companies and individuals who are price gauging and taking advantage of the situation. With a greater emphasis on helping each other, consumers are more likely to purchase from food and beverage companies and brands that are giving back. According to GlobalWebIndex, 38% of global consumers said brands that helped people during the outbreak will influence which ones they buy from after the pandemic.
Good will matters and needs to be a component of your marketing program. Consumers want to know that their purchases are making a difference and supporting companies who are contributing to a greater cause. Restaurants who give back to essential workers during the peak of the pandemic gain loyalty and support from their customers. There are many ways to give back, so be thoughtful and creative, keeping your brand authenticity and target audience in mind, like these brands: 

Moon Cheese is encouraging consumers to nominate individuals helping on the front lines in need of some fuel and a smile. The brand is sending free samples of the healthy cheese snack as a gift of gratitude to nominated essential workers, as well as to food banks and many hospitals through a partnership with Founder’s Give.

Aviation Gin donated 30 percent of its online proceeds to the United States Bartender’s Guild as a part of its “Tip Your Bartenders” program to help out-of-work bartenders.

Danone is donating $1.5 million to organizations making a local impact on food access in communities across the country as part its mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible. The company has set up a plan to help farmer and supplier partners, as well.

It’s evident that COVID-19 has impacted consumer behavior and habits, but what’s complicated is how brands should respond to these changes. Pollock Communications advises its food and beverage clients that a constant eye on the evolving situation and the ability to remain flexible and shift gears are key. Food marketers can use experiential tactics and goodwill to engage with target audiences and build relationships that will continue to be valuable beyond the pandemic. Focusing on how to foster a brand community digitally will be crucial as social distance rules continue to prevent in-person gatherings. When we rebound from this pandemic, having a loyal online community will be a key ingredient to fuel continued brand success.


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