-Jessica Appelgren, VP of communications, Impossible Foods
-Gemma Hart, VP of communications and community affairs, Danone North America
-Jesse Lewin, senior director, corporate communications, McDonald’s
-Jennifer Livingston, director of communications, Simply Good Foods
-Lori Rubinson, chief client officer, Lippe Taylor
-Erica Sarakaitis, senior director of communications, General Mills
-Heidi Schauer, VP, communications, public affairs and customer care, Wendy’s
-Wendy Watkins, VP, corporate communications, Hormel Foods
Empty restaurants have been among the most common sights since COVID-19 took hold of the U.S. in early 2020. That reality brought about a plethora of changes in consumer habits when it came to mealtime, many of which will hold past the pandemic.
Every brand in the food and beverage sector has been impacted by this in so many ways. Some of the top comms minds in the space recently gathered for a roundtable, hosted by Lippe Taylor, to discuss lessons learned, strategies rethought, and what the future holds for the sector and all those who communicate on its behalf.
However, consumers will always play a huge role in any brand’s plans, from products and services to all forms of engagement. So, the assembled group paid rapt attention as Lori Rubinson, chief client officer at Lippe Taylor, kicked off the roundtable by sharing some findings from an early May 2021 survey the firm conducted among 1,000 U.S. consumers.
Right off the bat, Rubinson observed that many respondents indicated that “if we can't physically travel to other parts of the world, maybe our palate can travel there.” COVID-19 clearly sparked an increased willingness to be adventurous and experimental with food.
When asked to describe their cooking habits during the pandemic as compared to pre-pandemic, 51% said they’d become “more adventurous.” Part of that was a willingness to try new ingredients or foods – from Indian cuisine to Jack fruit. Even when ordering from fast-food restaurants, 45% say they have tried a new menu item since COVID-19 started.
In terms of going forward, Rubinson highlighted that 88% of respondents said they will continue to use some of the new products they first tried over the past year-plus.
These insights into consumer sentiment set up the roundtable perfectly, as the gathered leaders discussed a variety of topics – including programs and/or offerings instituted in response to the pandemic. Below are some key takeaways from that conversation.
Roundtable participants were (clockwise from top left) Appelgren, Hart, Lewin, Livingston, Watkins, Schauer, Sarakaitis and Rubinson.
Food’s key role in climate change
-Jessica Appelgren, VP of communications, Impossible Foods: Beef has had a cultural moment. We are all thinking more about the connection between what we eat and climate change. Quality is going to be the key to success. Taste matters. At the end of the day, that's what people are looking for.
In addition, nine out of 10 parents say kids affect their food-purchasing decisions. We launched a microsite, Birds and the Trees, which includes a set of data and arguments teens can use to talk to their parents about climate change.
Flexitarian: a new way to eat
-Gemma Hart, VP of communications and community affairs, Danone North America: We saw a massive acceleration of consumer trends that we were already seeing pre-pandemic, with a pivot to focusing more on health and wellness and immunity. Consumers are moving toward a flexitarian diet. It’s a space that is growing and we see significant opportunities as people are more willing to try these products.
And with all the advances in taste, texture and mouthfeel, consumers are getting more comfortable with that segment.
Producing during the pandemic
-Jesse Lewin, senior director, corporate communications, McDonald’s: Through the Thank You Meal program, we took an idea from local franchises and expanded it, with the company giving 12 million meals to healthcare workers and first responders. We just announced a partnership with the White House to put vaccine information on our McCafé coffee cups and the sticker that goes on bags when they're delivered.
Giving consumers a boost
-Jennifer Livingston, director of communications, Simply Good Foods: We pivoted our entire communication strategy to give people healthy low-carb comfort-food recipes (substituting almond flour or coconut flour when baking) and we did a lot of immunity-boosting recipes. We did a lot of media pitching around mood boosting, immune boosting and we experienced a huge increase in our social following. It’s about little things you can do.
-Erica Sarakaitis, senior director of communications, General Mills: Food security is an important initiative for General Mills. It's foundational to who we are as a brand. To step up efforts to provide food to people in need during the pandemic, the company created a program, Manufacture to Donate, where we specifically dedicated facilities to produce food that went directly to Feeding America.
Taking care of the team
-Heidi Schauer, VP of communications, public affairs and customer care, Wendy’s: We implemented a lot more benefits and programs to support and recognize team members. We had to consider our franchisees and be a good partner. We established a deeper connection within our system that will continue to benefit us in the future. The bottom line is we found new, more efficient ways to get things done and we were more productive than ever before. Some of those things will definitely remain with us moving forward.
Following youth’s lead
-Wendy Watkins, VP, corporate communications, Hormel Foods: We're using the stories of ‘food heroes,’ people under the age of 20 who are doing remarkable things with food in connection to sustainability, to help amplify that message. We help them facilitate discussions about regenerative agriculture or the use of solar arrays, as well as ways to give back to their communities.
We also partnered with Harvard University for a Small Change, Big Impact Food Summit. We have a cultural anthropologist, who looks at insights and trends and goes into people's homes to see their actual behavior. We’re taking those thought leadership learnings and applying them.