As we look for a pathway out of the global COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is clear: This situation requires collective action and meaningful collaboration across different communities, countries and cultures.
In a time when many are facing daunting situations—from essential workers who need personal protective equipment to those trying to stave off feelings of isolation at home—some brands have chosen to meet these challenges with empathy and care for their communities and consumers’ immediate needs.
Research has shown that consumers care about companies who support causes that matter to them. Pre-pandemic, 74% ofU.S. Millennials said they are more likely to buy brands supporting social issues they care about. For brands, this makes things simple. Rarely is there one cause that resonates so deeply with so many at once. The brands that pivot with purpose will ensure they not only survive, but build their reputations and grow loyalty over the long-term.
To resonate with consumers, marketers need to reexamine their advertising to make sure that they are addressing consumers’ needs (while not appearing tone deaf) and connecting with them authentically. One social media influencer with millions of followers put it well when she reacted on Instagram to one brand’s shift to a one-for-one model to donate food to children impacted by COVID-19: “I love companies who take social responsibility seriously.” While brands can’t always count on public praise from their customers, this is both more authentic and more memorable than a paid ad.
As with any sustainability challenge, different industries will need to adopt their approaches to fit their unique skills, challenges and consumer base. However, there are some consistent themes across sustainability, brand loyalty and efficacy that demonstrate how brands can meaningfully pivot with purpose to advance the common good.
PUT SAFETY FIRST
In an age of telehealth and delayed non-essential medical care, consumers are fighting to keep their families safe. For sustainable-focused manufacturers of cleaning supplies, this means it’s important to highlight your disinfectant capabilities, while food manufacturers may need to further underscore for consumers how they can address their health concerns through their everyday food choices.
There are positive signs demonstrating that consumers’ appetite for sustainable goods hasn’t yet slowed. An analysis of product attributes by Nielsen BASES showed that when it came to household cleaners, the importance of organic, sustainable ingredients and natural claims have diminished in importance during the pandemic. However, the claim ‘Kills germs / bacteria in a natural way’ was one of the top three claims, just after products that said ‘Kills germs in an effective way.’ Moreover, consumers have already spent $33.6 billion this year on sustainable goods, up 15.8% compared to the same period last year week ended April 4, performing about four percentage points better than conventional products.
Some of sustainability’s growth during the weeks when consumers were stocking up ahead of living restrictions were driven by out-of-stocks. However, in the weeks following, we’ve seen the gap between conventional and sustainable sales growth level off. We expect this trend will continue as economic challenges persist, but that doesn’t mean sustainability is out of the game. Now is the time to make sure you are doing all you can to reassure your consumers—in authentic, meaningful ways—about the efficacy of your product, thus increasing consumer adoption and loyalty in the most sustainable way possible: consistently and reliably delivering on a true consumer need.
FLEX YOUR MANUFACTURING AND SUPPLY CHAIN
This crisis is also a reminder that sustainability is not just about what goes into your product, how it’s made, and what happens after a consumer is done with it. Sustainable brands maintain a flexible, responsive approach to consumer need, with a nimble supply chain and operations to match.
Facing a shortage of critical materials, some unlikely industries are stepping up to shine. Clothing, perfume and even alcohol brands are repurposing their production lines to meet demand for masks, hand sanitizer and other necessities.
This isn’t about changing your brand’s purpose or mission, but pivoting or expanding your day-to-day work to be more effective in meeting consumers’ needs wherever (and whatever) they are.
LOOK TO ALLEVIATE THE PAIN
Seemingly overnight, this pandemic has confronted people with new challenges—from small inconveniences to life-threatening situations—putting a magnifying glass on the social inequalities and health care policies within our societies. Companies can reduce the strain by thinking creatively about how to chip in to alleviate the burden.
DONATE WHAT YOU CAN TO HIGH-PRIORITY COMMUNITIES
Diaper brands have stepped in to support single parents and low income families, meditation apps have made some services free, restaurants are feeding hospital staff, and still other brands are adopting a one-for-one model where each consumer purchase leads to an in-kind donation for a health care worker.
Many of these models involve enabling consumers to pitch in and support these communities. Still, there are many more in need of support during this time. Consumer packaged goods manufacturers and retailers could also adopt this model and lean on their existing, long-standing connections with food banks and other non-profits to grow their impact through this network effect.
PUT YOUR EMPLOYEES FIRST
Over the past few weeks, countries around the world have seen record spikes in unemployment. Even as governments move to support their constituents, it’s businesses that may make the biggest impact on an individual’s life. Companies that communicate clearly, with leaders that act with empathy and who go above and beyond to keep their employees safe, will build brand loyalists for life. Nielsen data has consistently shown that consumers want to support companies that prioritize fair wages and other social responsibility attributes that positively impact the employees that power the brands they love.
REDUCE STAY-AT-HOME CHALLENGES
With most of the world quarantined at home, new and unexpected challenges are arriving—from parents trying to keep kids entertained and work from home to cooking more meals at home and dealing with more packaging than ever. A recent analysis of sales in the U.S. showed that products that advertised “less packaging” and “recyclable packaging” saw large spikes in sales upwards of 100% compared to last year.
Brands have an opportunity to help by planting new seeds for their consumers about how they can reduce packaging clutter, repurpose used containers, or make their products last longer. As consumers buy in bulk to stock their pantries, they can realize new uses for discarded containers that perhaps would have been missed, such as using an old shampoo bottle as a planter.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
This pandemic will test many brands, and whether or not they react in a socially responsible and sustainable way will have meaningful implications not just on their own businesses but on how we rebuild our communities.
Brands can position themselves both as supportive of consumers in the near-term crisis, while also acting as a bridge into whatever comes next, growing their bonds over time.
For food brands, there are glimmers of hope even as the shifting economy takes its toll on wallets. In France, during the pandemic sales of organic have continuously outpaced conventional products and performed particularly well in regions with a higher population of families. In both the U.S. and France, since the last recession, the industry has responded by expanding its range of private label organic offerings. Meaning, that there are more value-options available to consumers than in recent years.
A 2019 survey also showed that 56% of French people have a very specific diet dictated by animal welfare, organic, local and other sustainable attributes. Year-to-date, Americans have spent $81.8 billion on vegetarian diets as of the week ended April 4. For these consumers who have moved towards vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diets, organic and other sustainable methods will have an important role to play as consumers balance their dietary needs with availability to spend.
No matter the moment in time, it’s when brands are able to make that connection between what’s healthy for me—the consumer—and what’s healthy for the world that we’ve seen sustainable outcomes grow as sales and brand loyalty rise.
By Julia Wilson, Vice President, Global Responsibility & Sustainability at NIELSEN