How the pandemic has prepared brands for an uncertain future
When President Joe Biden announced the Senate had passed his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on March 6, he summarized the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked in the U.S.: “As of last night, 519,064 lives lost to the virus. … More than 400 [thousand] small businesses closed unnecessarily. Millions of people out of work through no fault of their own. … Food bank lines stretching for miles. Did any of you ever think you’d see that in America—in cities all across this country?”
Feeding America, for one, has been well aware of the hunger crisis from the beginning. While food insecurity is by no means a new problem, COVID-19 has significantly exacerbated the issue. In 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic, 35.2 million people, including 10.7 million children, experienced food insecurity in the U.S.
As a result of the pandemic, Feeding America now projects that 42 million people could experience food insecurity this year, including 13 million children. Families of color have been even more disproportionately impacted, with 24% of black children and 19% of Latino children living in food insecure households, compared with 11% of white children.
Feeding America Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Catherine Davis has been a friend of Ad Age’s since she was named a Woman to Watch in 2018. Her experience in the philanthropic space made her a natural choice the following year to be named to the inaugural class of The List, the group of advertising and marketing industry leaders assembled by Ad Age in partnership with Facebook and charged with taking on a specific challenge facing the industry and constructing concrete actions to effect positive change.
Davis’ class focused on equitable parental leave and family policies, while the combined classes of 2020 and 2021 are taking on unconscious bias by launching a pilot mentorship program to help midcareer professionals of color and other underrepresented groups in the hopes of helping to solve the industry's diverse talent crisis. The mass socioeconomic and cultural disruption caused by the pandemic, the social justice movement in response to systemic racism and police killings of Black people, and the polarized political climate not only called attention to the root causes of the problems The List classes have taken on but also amplified the righteousness of their missions.
“Most people still don't know that there are that many people who are hungry. People have all these stereotypes of what hunger is in other countries, but they don't realize what’s happening right next door." —Catherine Davis, CMO, Feeding America
Like Feeding America, List members have chosen to tackle inequities in our society, and one of their greatest tasks is a core challenge that Feeding America has confronted for years: the importance of raising awareness, which is especially urgent now, during a time of almost constant crisis.
“Most people still don't know that there are that many people who are hungry,” Davis says. “People have all these stereotypes of what hunger is in other countries, but they don't realize what’s happening right next door.
“People are having to make incredibly hard decisions about whether to pay their rent or whether they eat,” she added. “A lot of people skip meals. Particularly if you have kids, parents skipping meals is incredibly common. It’s a really, really difficult position to be in.”
In September, Davis wrote an Ad Age Opinion piece on the six biggest marketing and communications lessons that will stay with us through the pandemic and beyond.
Now, six months and several significant crises later—including the unprecedented winter storms and subfreezing temperatures that battered hundreds of millions of Americans—Ad Age Studio 30 checked back in with Davis to help The List and the industry at large connect the dots between the myriad challenges of the past year and those yet to come for takeaways that marketers can use to prepare for an uncertain future.
Ad Age Studio 30: How did the extreme weather in Texas and other areas of the country—such as Mississippi, which is still dealing with its own water crisis—exacerbate the food insecurity already caused by the pandemic? And most important, what can people do to help?
Catherine Davis: The winter storms created crisis on top of crisis on top of crisis. The cold temperatures caused power outages and impacted the water infrastructure, which also disrupted the food supply chain. In addition, many families lost valuable food that spoiled from lack of power. For families already facing hunger, those added expenses and challenges may make putting food on the table very difficult at a time when the pandemic has already caused millions more families to experience food insecurity. We know that while the storms may be over, the impacts could be long-lasting.
Studio 30: Have you found inspiration from brands or other marketers doing good work to help? Are there any partnerships Feeding America is working on for this weather-related crisis in particular?
Davis: Following the snow and freezing temperatures and power outages, the water supply was disrupted, affecting more than 13 million people. Food and safe drinking water are essential, and food banks are requesting water for distribution. To date, 108 truckloads of relief supplies have been sent to food banks in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky. In the coming days and weeks, more emergency food will be diverted to areas facing the continuing fallout from the storm.
Feeding America worked with our donors to secure water, snacks and ready-to-eat meals to help in the immediate aftermath. We are grateful to have partners within the food industry that know our disaster response work and are able to quickly step up to help meet the needs of local food banks. Some partners that have stepped up to help during this most recent crisis are Cargill, Conagra Brands, International Paper, Kellogg Co., Mondelēz International, VOSS Water and Walmart.
Studio 30: Food insecurity was a major issue for the country before COVID hit, and now that we’ve seen how extreme weather can also worsen food issues for Americans, has that changed or amplified any of the marketing and communications lessons you wrote about in September?
Davis: As the winter storms passed through the majority of the country, a few of those lessons stood out:
The importance of press: It is important to communicate your efforts to a wide audience, especially when you need public support. As communities lost power, water and supplies, food banks responded, partnering with local officials and other organizations to organize food and water distributions and coordinate home deliveries. Local food bank representatives were the best spokespeople for the network, sharing what they were experiencing firsthand. Our strong relationships with media outlets allowed us to elevate their voices to a national audience and generate support.
Don’t underestimate the importance of brand purpose: We continue to be awed by the number of brands who have reached out to help people facing hunger through COVID-19 and during the crisis in Texas. More and more brands have clearly identified their brand purpose and are taking actions that benefit their communities. Across all audiences, we have seen that people like to give back and align themselves with brands that share their core values.
"Stay focused on your 'north star.' It’s hard to stay focused when external forces are continuing to change. We must ask ourselves everyday if the work we are doing will have an impact for the people we serve and prioritize accordingly." —Catherine Davis, chief marketing and communications officer, Feeding America
Studio 30: What are the lessons that we should take from our experience of the past year that can be applied to meet the next unpredictable challenges we will inevitably face as climate change and potential disruptions to the economy and social order become more of our shared reality?
Davis: Develop the muscle for “fast and slow” planning (thank you, Daniel Kahneman!): While the news cycle and current events are fast and unpredictable today, we need to plan for what we do know and build in time for reactive work as well. This takes more time and resources but can help avoid working in a constantly chaotic environment.
Stay focused on your “north star”: It’s hard to stay focused when external forces are continuing to change. For Feeding America, it is the people that we serve. We must ask ourselves everyday if the work we are doing will have an impact for the people we serve and prioritize accordingly.
Stay close to consumer sentiment and actions: Invest in resources and tools to help stay on top of conversations and trends and make adjustments where necessary.
To support efforts nationwide, you can make a donation to Feeding America by going to feedingamerica.org. To support your community or affected communities directly, you can also use the Feeding America food bank locator at feedingamerica.org/foodbank.