Food Meets Covid-19

It’s not often we experience an event that impacts everyone, in almost every part of their lives, and nearly overnight. It’s arguable whether anyone in the United States has experienced something like that in living memory. Even following the events of 9/11, a person might have woken up on the 12th and led essentially the same life they led on the 10th. But it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t been impacted by Covid-19. Every aspect of our economy and every person in the country has had to deal with, minimally, disruption to routines. For many, it’s been much more difficult than that. For some, their whole lives have been turned upside down. For a few, they or someone they know or love may have lost their lives.

As marketers, we have developed tactics for responding in the wake of tragedies and natural disasters. We know which messages resonate in difficult emotional and economic times. But we have not had to find a response to a pandemic as it’s happening, everywhere, practically overnight — and certainly not one that continues, in slow motion horror, without a clear sense of ending.

The following is the beginning of a response, specifically, in the world we know best: the marketing of food and food culture through content. Like the disaster that precipitated it, this response will surely evolve as time passes and the realities of our situation change.

Stages

As each stage of the Covid-19 response has unfolded, consumers have developed new priorities and needs. We see the following as the significant stages of the crisis and its aftermath.

Covid-19 first appeared on American radars at the start of 2020. By the beginning of March, the true scale of that threat was clear and most of our population was living under some kind of stay-at-home order that closed or drastically curtailed how and where they obtained their food.

We refer to that initial period as “Lockdown.” It was a disorienting time of sudden, drastic change and worry — and the threat of a pandemic of ill-defined scale and impact.

Following Lockdown is the time we’re in now, which we call “Recalibration.” It’s a period of some adjustment and impatient acceptance of how we’re being made to live. As infinitely adaptable as humans are, we’ve settled into the routine aspects of life in Covid-19 times. We’re waiting for some sense of what comes next.

“The New Normal,” is the future. At that point, hopefully, we’ll have a better understanding of the rules and expectations, and the larger medium- to long-term impact of Covid-19 will begin to take shape.

While Lockdown is a period defined by anxiety and fear, and Recalibration deals with learning how to live and what to expect, we believe The New Normal will focus primarily on economic hardship and instability.

Lockdown

Two overriding messaging priorities became apparent during Lockdown. They remain relevant and, we believe, will remain relevant for some time to come.

Time-conscious, uncomplicated food ideas

Time-saving food ideas are always important to American consumers, but during Lockdown, the fundamental why changed. Instead of realizing during the last meeting of the day that you had no idea what you were going to feed your family for dinner, you realized at some point between a Zoom call and being a babysitter for your youngest and a homeschooling teacher’s aid for your oldest. You couldn’t remember what time that was because time itself became more fluid and fungible. What day is it, you asked? Do we still call them by different names?

Consumers in this period realized they needed to not only provide breakfast and dinner, but also lunch and snack — and the answer to every other need for food and beverage. Every single day. They generated more dirty dishes than they even knew they owned. It was a period defined by exhaustion. They craved efficiency and comfort.

Content tactics:

  • One-pot, one-pan meals
  • Grab-and-go premade or pre-prepared options
  • Instant Pot, slow cooker ideas
  • Snacks as meals
Grocery is the frontline for many

While those involved in the food supply chain — from farms and ranches to factories and processing facilities to grocery store aisles and check-out stands — have always been essential workers, it took Covid-19 for people to fully realize it. When they saw grocery store workers stocking shelves and ringing up baskets in spite of the risk of catching a sometimes debilitating or fatal disease. When they saw them working at day-before-Thanksgiving levels for days and weeks in a row and maintaining a generally positive, friendly, and helpful attitude toward their customers. Attitudes that were not always reciprocated.

Concurrently, a population accustomed to living in a world of plenty suddenly found some shelves emptied of the most basic staples. Dealing with the rationing of toilet paper, ground beef, and cleaning supplies when they could be found dealt an unexpected blow to consumers’ sense of security. It eroded their idea of what could be depended upon. The epicenter of all that was their local grocery store.

That store also became the center of their away-from-home social life. It was not only one of the few places they could go, it was the only place they needed to go.

Content tactics:

  • Employee profiles
  • Company updates
  • Highlight of community involvement and charity
  • Elevation of consumer-generated expression of thanks

Recalibration

During Recalibration, consumer sentiment shifted from anxiety and fear of the unknown to resigned acceptance. Their needs for content shifted, as well.

Home cook confidence building

As the repetition of the daily cooking routine extended to weeks, cooks needed inspiration to branch out, to try new things, and to make use of the food that was available in their grocery stores. They may also have started to miss restaurant favorites or found themselves dealing with a shortage of animal proteins. Or, conversely, their Lockdown panic-buying might have left them with an excess of perishables and staples they wanted or needed to use up.

Content tactics:

  • Substitution strategies
  • Copycat recipes
  • Meal planning
  • How to prepare and cook seafood
  • Canning and preserving
New product discovery

New brand offerings and/or line extensions are popular content for consumers. Right now, people are either shopping online or trying to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible, so discovering new products is a real challenge. Online shopping tools often streamline the purchase of previously purchased items and have inconsistent new product suggestion capabilities. If the increase in online shopping is permanent, introducing new products through content marketing activities will become even more important.

Content tactics:

  • “Product as product” spots
  • Differentiated product spotlights
  • Targeted paid media highlighting new and differentiated products
  • Employee/customer quotes and testimonials

The New Normal

In the future, the reality of Covid-19’s economic impact will settle in — in a way it hasn’t yet. Economic uncertainty will challenge the virus as consumers’ number one concern. They may be without work, underemployed, or minimally worried about their household’s future earning potential. In times of recession, people seek comfort and reassurance from their food. They become more frugal and less ostentatious. In large part, current online food culture was born after the last recession. Content providers who don’t adjust their messages to this New Normal run the risk of appearing out of touch and without empathy.

Content tactics:

  • Value-focused food ideas
  • Emotionally comforting
  • Targeted indulgence
  • Less focus on faddish trends, more on enduring traditions

Impact on tone

Ultimately, as we navigate the virus and enter the New Normal, marketers need to adjust their tone and evolve to remain relevant and approachable.

  • More “us,” less “we” and “you”
  • Highlight the personal and human within brands
  • Be warm and approachable
  • Demonstrate empathy without cloyishness or emotional exploitation
  • Exude optimism and confidence – in one another and ourselves