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Food companies, restaurants take new approaches to marketing amid pandemic

How are restaurants, CPG suppliers and grocers changing their marketing messages in the time of coronavirus?

5 min read


Food companies, restaurants take new approaches to marketing amid pandemic

Stop & Shop

Marketing during a global pandemic can be a delicate balance. Companies don’t want to come off as opportunistic, but they also want to share timely and relevant messages with their customers. For food suppliers, restaurants and grocers, the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity to share their purpose and leverage changing consumer behaviors. 

Sharing important messages, helping others

Companies throughout the food industry are using their platforms to share important messages with customers, and many are putting a premium on showing empathy in the process. In fact, a recent survey from PepsiCo and Ipsos found that four out of five respondents believe empathy is more important than ever, with the primary ways of demonstrating it being responding to workers and the community, treating people with respect, treating people as human beings, listening, caring and acknowledging when the brand is wrong.

“The most important thing we can do as marketing organizations is lead through action, supporting our people — employees, the community and consumers,” said Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo Beverages North America.

To do just that, food retailer Stop & Shop released a campaign dubbed “Please,” with ads running across TV, radio, print and digital channels that feature customers sharing suggestions on how to keep fellow shoppers and store employees safe during the pandemic. Oscar Mayer is also encouraging consumers to stay safe with its Front Yard Cookout campaign, asking revelers to stay at least 12 hot dogs apart and to thank the grill master with an air high five or thumbs up.

Brands are also finding ways to show their support for the country’s front-line workers. Hershey will release a DC Super Hero bar featuring Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman, with the first round of bars being donated to police stations, hospitals and firehouses throughout the country. Likewise, Dunkin’ celebrated National Nurses Day by offering a free medium coffee and donut to all healthcare workers.

Hot sauce brand Cholula partnered with its creative agency and several celebrities to host a virtual Cinco de Mayo event to raise funds for independent restaurants. For each viewer, the company donated $1 to

“Restaurants are an integral part of our society and provide millions of jobs,” said Cholula Food Company Chief Marketing Officer Miguel Leal in a news release. “This is just one part of Cholula’s effort, and we’re proud to support our friends in the culinary community and to be part of this national movement to help them reopen and remain open.”

Unilever is also finding ways to do good even though it has had to shift its marketing priorities. On May 21, the company will hold a National Day of Service in which all of the products manufactured that day will be donated to those affected by the pandemic. Having and sharing a purpose is paramount to the business, especially in these trying times, CEO Alan Jope recently told Bloomberg Businessweek.

“Our company is guided by three deeply held beliefs: that brands with purpose grow, companies with purpose last, and people with purpose thrive,” Jope said. “And we think that refrain is going to be even more relevant in a post-coronavirus world than in a pre-coronavirus world. So we will not waver one iota in our commitment to purpose-led business.”

Leveraging changing behaviors, new circumstances

Another marketing tactic being undertaken by food companies is utilizing changing consumer behaviors to reach a wider, ever-changing audience. In addition to cooking more at home, for example, consumers are also increasingly using the internet to find new and interesting recipes, tips and tricks.

Building on changing behaviors, spice brand McCormick has been able to reach customers new and old on social media. After seeing a 60% surge in at-home-related Pinterest searches, the company started inserting links with resource suggestions for topics including bread baking.

“By watching the trends, we can anticipate the question and make sure that the appropriate brand has an answer waiting in their search results — sometimes asserting our culinary expertise where someone may not have considered us,” Alia Kemet, McCormick’s senior director for creative and digital strategy, told AdExchanger.

Denny’s is also leveraging a digitally connected audience by becoming a gamer on gaming systems including PS4 and Xbox One and sharing codes and discounts to other gamers that it connects with. According to Mobile Marketer, the restaurant chain shared its account information on Instagram and saw a 26% engagement rate on the platform.

With the pandemic also upending normal avenues for creating advertising collateral, many food companies and restaurants have turned to staff members to help keep the creative flowing. Panera Bread, for example, partnered with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to run a largely unscripted ad emphasizing its delivery service shot completely by employees on their own smartphones.

Likewise, Kraft Heinz turned the camera on its manufacturing employees to create its “We Got You America” TV ad.

“Our company’s mission has never been clearer — we have a mission to help feed the world,” Kraft Heinz US President Carlos Abrams-Rivera said in a statement. “And our employees are on the front lines making sure the products consumers know, love and trust make it to store shelves. They are the heroes of our company!” 

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