For food and beverage brands, COVID-19 creates unique litmus test

While the crisis unfolds and the news remains grim, businesses can prove their purpose as they find ways to be of service in their communities.

Keurig Dr Pepper distribution center, makers of Keurig, Dr Pepper Snapple and Bai drinks II

Things are not normal.

Our society has changed in unimaginable ways, with shelter-at-home orders, non-essential companies either shutting their doors or migrating to a work-from-home model, and industries like food service being forced to adapt their business strategies overnight. Furthermore, it’s unclear how long it will be before “normalcy” returns.

As we settle into new routines and try to maintain order in this uncharted territory, we can also find effective ways to support one another. Forward-thinking brands are demonstrating their ability to nimbly pivot and provide creative solutions that address new consumer needs.

We’d all do well to take a page from their book.

Strain on the food chain

The coronavirus pandemic has created tremendous difficulties for the food system, as demand has shifted and supply chain routes have been disrupted. Crops that were planted earlier this spring and intended to supply hotels, schools, restaurants and businesses can’t easily be rerouted to grocery stores for consumers or even to food banks, leading to a distressing amount of food waste, empty shelves and increased food insecurity.

Many farmers and food service companies are searching for ways to avoid waste and meet demand by adjusting their product/service delivery models and making their content strategies more suited for the current reality. Those that can find a way to economically shift their operations while providing useful, timely and relevant offerings are poised to succeed.

Reading the virtual room

Brands who took the initiative to make proactive adjustments in the first month of the pandemic have wowed us with their responses. These are the “yes-and” leaders of the business world. And they are best positioned to maintain a loyal customer base, as Porter Novelli’s COVID-19 Tracker indicates 45% of survey respondents believe companies can create COVID-19 solutions better and faster than the government.

Thirty-nine percent also believe the food and beverage industry is doing the best job providing support during the pandemic (second only to health and wellness).

Jimmy Szczepanek, leader Porter Novelli’s food practice, points out how this provides brands with a unique opportunity: “How brands and industries respond to this challenge will arguably shape their perception in the long-term as well as the short-term. A crisis can either destroy or elevate a brand—and the companies that we see embracing their purpose and innovating to provide services, support and inspiration will be remembered long after coronavirus is a distant memory.”

Taking heed of this necessary shift, brands like Panera, California Pizza Kitchen and Subway have launched their own quick-service “markets,” allowing customers to pick up ingredients that comprise their favorite recipes and cook with them at home. Similarly, Sysco is helping small businesses transform their dine-in areas into pop-up shops where customers can shop for essentials. Waffle House is selling its famous waffle mix for the first time.

Content is also coming from unexpected sources, as innovative companies push to think outside of their usual boxes and fulfill unique needs during quarantine.

As we’ve seen widespread interest in baking, cooking comfort foods, online learning and at-home wellness regimens, food brands whose offerings are tangential yet not directly related to these quarantine pastimes have successfully leaned in to meet consumers’ preferences. Siggi’s is offering baking inspiration using their yogurt. Plant-based protein brand Impossible Foods regularly posts recipe ideas and live tutorials for healthier versions of comfort food recipes. Kellogg’s is serving up continuing education webinars. Chipotle partnered with Whole 30 to promote an Instagram Live meditation session.

And brand responses focused on donations, food rescue or free services for those who need them most will always stand the test of time. Companies who have the resources to provide simple comforts and make this current reality a bit more sustainable have improved lives in countless ways. Take, for example, Publix’s pledge to purchase farmers’ excess produce and milk, which would have otherwise only added to the growing amount of food waste, and donate it to area food banks—to the tune of 150,000 pounds of produce and 43,500 gallons of milk in the first week alone.

Kellogg’s Better Days purpose platform and Heart and Soul campaign has donated more than $10 million to combat food insecurity. General Mills committed $5 million in product to Feeding America to address urgent hunger needs and is launching a paid community service program for employees. Keurig Dr Pepper acknowledges that while their company doesn’t “make masks or medical equipment, [they] do make beverages.” The company has donated thousands of brewers and K-Cup coffee pods to hospital break rooms across the country, an unconventional yet highly effective move to support healthcare professionals in their fight against the pandemic, which also rings true to the company’s purpose.

Filling the ever-growing need for philanthropy during this time is another opportunity for brands to make a real difference. Porter Novelli research shows 75% of survey respondents believe that companies have a responsibility to support coronavirus relief.

While not every brand can offer solutions at this scale and reallocate resources to serve the collective good, a word of advice for those that want to do something “extra” to help. Applying appropriate filters to gauge your brand’s planned response is crucial. Szczepanek advises to consider if it will truly be helpful to people, if it’s already being offered by another brand and if it will come across in an authentic way.

Brighter days ahead

Despite the fact that coronavirus has created negative disruption in all of our lives, we can use this situation to find the power of innovation in full force, satisfy unmet needs and provide necessary relief.

We can begin to create more deliberate solutions that resonate and better serve our customers and employees, but only if we challenge ourselves to uncover those solutions. By being bold, leaning into purpose and looking at ways in which we can make a positive impact, we can turn a negative experience into a more positive one.

And brighter days will come – they always do.

Kristen Ellis is a senior account executive at Porter Novelli Atlanta.


One Response to “For food and beverage brands, COVID-19 creates unique litmus test”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Just from the lead we can see right away that this one is special.

    Then just two paragraphs down, where it talks not about how to GET but how to “provide creative solutions that address new consumer needs”—how to DO more for clients serving the public—we can guess right away that this must be one of the great PR firms. Sure enough, scrolling down shows it’s Porter Novelli.

    Account group leaders may be the only ones with even a prayer of ever seeing seven figures, but who SHOULD get that kind of money is the head of human resources for P-N who brings in a wealth of this talent for P-N clients.

    Look at the whole thing—Problem, Answer Opportunities, and how P-N is structured to make PR answers successful. Yet among all the grunts and even the allstars, few may even know the HR chief’s name.

    It’s like college Admissions Directors. They are the ones who let us in but do you think they get swamped with thankful Christmas cards?

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