Opinion: What Feeding America learned during COVID-19
Marketers and communicators have become more sophisticated in navigating crises, defining and redefining processes to mitigate risk and maintain consumer loyalty.
Yet no one expected COVID-19. Between the outbreaks, lockdowns, unemployment and loss of life, the crisis has been novel in more ways than one.
It made sense when many food and beverage brands paused campaigns or ad spend in the first few months of the pandemic. In fact, it was smart. Though he was born only in February, Baby Nut—the new spokescharacter for Planters—stayed silent at the onset of the pandemic. And Molson Coors halted a March Madness campaign called the “Official Beer of ‘Working’ Remotely,” which had an entirely different ring to it when many were forced to work from home.
While it was important to pull back on pre-pandemic strategies that no longer resonated during times of crisis, it was just as important to propel new messaging and marketing initiatives as quickly—yet purposefully—as possible. Kantar, a leading data insights company, discovered most consumers expect companies to advertise, respond to the pandemic and show how their brand can positively impact a new normal.
For Feeding America—the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization with 200 food banks and 60,000 partner agencies—the issue of hunger penetrated all four corners of the United States long before COVID-19. We had established practices in place to support our neighbors in need before, during and after times of disaster or emergency.
But everything related to this crisis has been unprecedented, which meant we had to go back to the drawing board to redesign how to best help our neighbors. That led to the six biggest marketing and communications lessons that will stay with us through the pandemic and after it ends.
Start with the press
The pandemic thrust more than 30 million people into unemployment from mid-March through April. Food banks were overwhelmed by people seeking help so they could feed their families. We had an important story to tell and the press immediately highlighted the difficulties our neighbors were facing. Our relationships with media including “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” CNN, the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal allowed us to reach as many audiences as possible.
Create a relevant, user-friendly narrative
We developed a simple narrative about “the perfect storm” to describe an average 60 percent increase in demand at food banks, declines in donations and disruptions to the charitable food assistance system’s operating model. We made sure that we included an ask for help across every channel.
Fall forward fast
In mid-March, millions more sought our support and guidance, and we had to make decisions quickly. In general, consumers expect brands and organizations to respond immediately in times of crisis. You need to launch a thoughtful response, but not get caught up in trying to think through every option or get bogged down in complicated approval processes. Pick a direction and adapt. Being there immediately is a competitive advantage.
Empower others to tell your story for you
As marketers, we often like to control the way our brand shows up in the world. But if you can be flexible, it is surprising how often a wide range of partners will jump in to support you. Hundreds of celebrities and corporations propelled our movement, including Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, Elton John, Subaru, AT&T, Jersey Mike’s Subs, Mondelēz and Walmart. Be brave enough to let others carry your message for you in ways they find personal and meaningful. They know their audience far better than you do.
Measure the impact of everything and feed it into your plans
Between our public relations strategies, social media efforts, public service ads and corporate campaigns, we used a wide variety of channels to reach the public. Through listening tools and digital tracking, we gathered data and analytics to identify the breadth and depth of our impact, using those metrics to adapt plans accordingly. Listen to the numbers; they can be your biggest ally.
Never underestimate the importance of brand purpose
Millions across the country continue to come together to raise money and awareness about the issue of hunger. That support is critical in helping overcome the challenges created by COVID-19. We have found that people want to help other people and want to partner with brands who share their beliefs.
The pandemic will have a long-term, negative impact on millions of our neighbors, and we will be tackling the aftermath of COVID-19 for the long haul. We will continue to use these six best practices as our guideposts as we go forward.