In their traditional guises, Veganuary and Dry January almost seemed futile this year. 2020 ushered in a seismic level of new behaviours, and for food brands, it was essential to acknowledge that shift in order to remain relevant. And it’s something they’ll have to keep doing, over and over.
Find more relevant ways to connect with people beyond just seasonal hooks
This year didn’t start like a ‘normal’ year, so you’re not going to be able to connect with customers ‘normally’. And that’s fine. They understand that. Until there’s a level of certainty, comms should focus on the long-term benefits your brand will bring to customers and their lives, rather than a generic ‘New Year, New Me’ angle - now just isn’t the time.
Instead, look to appeal to your audience’s practical side, not just the emotional. After all, four in 10 of us have striven to be more eco-friendly during lockdown - Quorn’s new campaign, Helping The Planet One Bite At A Time, clearly addresses this. It’s not rocket science - it’s a minute-long clip encompassing thousands of years of humanity, breaking down how swapping meat for Quorn can do wonders for your cookbook and the climate.
The emphasis on One Bite At A Time is similar to how, for example, we frame the work for HeyHuman’s client, SlimFast. We recently worked on the brand’s new positioning, focusing on the step in front of you, rather than the entire staircase - essentially, making it clear that an easy, doable step towards a healthier lifestyle is much more manageable than an entire diet rehaul, especially during a third lockdown.
Don’t get stuck on the same channel
Between lockdowns, I commissioned some research concerning local stores, attitudes towards physical shopping and promotions, and the store as a community hub. Why? I was intrigued. Curious to know how the public’s relationship with their local stores had changed since we all had to stop interacting like humans should.
The findings were pretty emphatic: 82% of people were happy to stop and take samples of new products while shopping, and nearly 60% wanted to do so at their local stores. That latter statistic was particularly revealing - a sizeable chunk of those surveyed wanted to get in a close-quarters local store to actively receive samples, and find out more about new food and drink products.
Clearly, the shop as a community hub isn’t something that’s been broken down by coronavirus. So, adapting your communications to appeal to these people is key - and not just in corner shops. Think of other hyper-local, social environments in which your food brand sits. For example, how does your brand stand out in a coffee shop? A petrol station checkout?
Food has, for so long, pumped a large portion of its marketing spend on TV, online, outdoors, and in-store. These are vital channels, but other points of sale can’t be underestimated in our new, COVID-restricted day-to-day.
Once the pandemic wanes, that local mindset I outlined earlier will remain - despite people’s eagerness to dive headfirst into shops for Christmas sales last month, a residual distrust of large gatherings and events will remain for the foreseeable.
As such, it’s time for food brands to start planning for what comes next now. You only have to look at Heinz’s direct-to-consumer venture last spring to see how big names are capitalising on customers staying at home - they’re solidifying that loyalty before it’s truly needed. Once things go back to ‘normal’, people will remember efforts to reach out like Heinz. Between April and June last year, TV ads for online food delivery increased by 42%. Retail ads for specifically DTC or online products and services shot up by 101% - the appetite for these services is being reflected in media spend.
Think of how different, more personal marketing methods play into your food brand, and how you can let customers know you’re still there after this intense period without seeming... opportunistic. Depending on your brand, this can play out in a multitude of ways. For example, close collaboration with a food delivery company like Deliveroo could benefit an up-and-coming dessert brand, offering complimentary samples to customers who order a specific meal one of the brand’s products really goes with.
Or, on another end of the scale, doorstep marketing could make something of a comeback - safely, of course - with brand ambassadors and delivery workers becoming the equivalent of today’s postal workers or milkmen, delivering what people want with a smile and hopefully a bit of conversation, too. The scope is there for technology, too - Milton Keynes and Northampton are already making ample use of Starship delivery robots, which ferry groceries to households replete with a little greeting message. Who’s to say offers, branding and so on can’t be used in this context?
Last summer, we were all convinced that business as usual would return by the year’s end. It’d be irresponsible to put another timeline or date on when or if that might happen in 2021, but what I can say is this: food brands have plenty of evidence suggesting that, with their customers’ radically changed behaviour, a change in approach must follow in order to reach and engage with them. Don’t waste that chance.
Liz Richardson is managing director and partner at HeyHuman, and a member of FoodNavigator’s Expert Advisory Panel.