Food for Thought

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Food for Thought New perspectives on how COVID-19 is reshaping communications in food, drink and agribusiness

July 2020



Introduction There is no doubt the impact of COVID-19 has been profound on the food, agribusiness and beverage (FAB) industry. The pandemic has reshaped – and will continue to affect – our communities, culture and economy. The food and drink we choose to purchase and consume in many ways reflects our hopes and fears as a nation.

We are delighted to share with you some thinking from our seasoned consultants that starts to put COVID-19 in context. The articles in this magazine share our perspective on how COVID-19 has magnified, distorted or displaced concerns that existed before the virus appeared and will share the stage with it over the coming years.

How do companies and organisations operating in the food, agribusiness and beverage (FAB) sector make sense of the uncertain times in which we currently live and chart a course forward that anticipates and resonates with people’s expectations and experiences?

Firstly, Lesley brings a brand marketing perspective that helps us evaluate the new consumer landscape under COVID-19. The pandemic has changed how we shop and what we shop for. The supermarket and the shopping mall are both ‘one stop shop’ destinations that now generate ‘one in one out’ queues. There are signs that people are



buying local again from a diverse range of suppliers. Business models are being turned on their head and communications can play a key role in helping them pivot. Then, experienced social & research practitioners Deirdre and Emily show us how the British public has taken enormous comfort and joy from food and drink during the pandemic to date. Consumers on social media have celebrated the brands that have acted nimbly and with sensitivity, while speaking with a clear and concise honesty. Next, Victoria has looked beyond the government’s daily COVID-19 news briefing to consider how the trade talks with the US and the EU will shape our shopping baskets next year. There is much to play for on the public affairs agenda. The government wants to plough its own furrow on food and drink, but is caught between competing demands to align with different systems of food production across the Atlantic versus those from across the Channel and Irish Sea.

Following that, Sarina and Samiah from our D&I Ethnicities Steering Group consider how food and drink business concerned with ‘building back better’ from the COVID-19 lockdown might communicate progress on diversity & inclusion matters as the UK economy restarts and communities venture outside again. Sadly, there is no quick fix for racism in our society and economy and we encourage companies and organisations to think about how they might sustain the steps they have taken and continue to take on this issue as part of a long journey. And, for those that haven’t taken any to start soon. Finally, our corporate reputation expert Holly shares new FleishmanHillard Fishburn research that reveals how deeds, not words, will determine whether business can meet consumers’ growing expectations of action on the climate crisis. COVID-19 has increased the urgency and impatience of people wanting to see tangible measures taken to care for our planet and its resources.

We hope you find these perspectives of interest and that they offer value to your work. We would be pleased to discuss how we might help you tread confidently down the complex communications paths that lie ahead.

Liam McCloy




The COVID Consumption Curve In previous recessions, cash-strapped consumers treated themselves to small indulgences rather than larger, more extravagant purchases. The ‘lipstick effect’ theory assumes that consumers will still buy luxury items even during a crisis. This may be true to an extent, but recent analysis on products and services flying off the shelves suggests a much bigger upward trajectory of ordinary, everyday items and sources of entertainment.

We call this the COVID Consumption Curve.



YouTube saw a 54% increase in the popularity of ‘With me’ instructional videos as the population returned to a much simpler life of home cooking, gardening and crafting. Since lockdown, the third place has become a distant memory. Restaurants, coffee shops, pubs and clubs have sat empty for months. Many consumers have swerved supermarket queues in favour of shopping local and bakeries, delis, greengrocers and butchers are now seeing lines outside their doors. For a few years, people have lamented the slow death of the high street. But it looks like the shopping malls could be heading towards an early grave. Businesses seemingly fattening the COVID Consumption Curve in the hospitality industry are takeaways and food delivery apps. But the data on two of the most popular services actually suggests otherwise. In France, Spain and the UK, these companies saw drops in average daily users ranging from 2% to as much as 23% in March, compared with the averages for January and February. With supermarket delivery slots still at a premium food delivery services are now tapping into picking up general groceries too. And talking of picking, a new advertising campaign supporting the government’s ‘Pick for Britain’ initiative recently launched. Aimed at recruiting up to 70,000 new fruit and vegetable pickers, the idea was to help fill the shortfall of migrant labour.


The ad was created by our agency partners at adam&eveDDB. It cleverly uses black and white stock footage to illuminate the life of a picker as a key worker and being part of something bigger. While advertising production budgets have been drastically scaled back to repurposing stock footage, there has never been a better time to put spend behind earned and owned. PR and comms is as important and as valuable as ever. We’ve helped some of our household name clients pivot on their long-honed strategies to produce quick-turnaround work that resonates and helps future-proof them when we come out the other side. In February 2020, we had plans to launch a global brand campaign for a multinational consumer goods company. Then the unthinkable happened and the brand’s business has since turned on its head. Most of its sales were generated through out-of-home products. The brand’s teams of thousands of vendors (both in small retail stores and on the ground) were suddenly put on hold. We developed ideas that were rooted in purpose to provide meaningful and uplifting social content, as well as schemes that allowed their products to be donated to frontline workers and school children. Good businesses will survive this catastrophe and never before has reputation in a time of crisis, mattered for the future. A company is only remembered by what happens when you don’t adapt to a changing world.



Eating Our Words The COVID-19 behavioural shifts shaping social Whether it’s the dramatic rise in banana bread recipe searches or social media commentary around the latest pub offering freshly poured pints to takeaway, it’s clear that the past few months have changed the way we talk about food and drink on social. Although the FAB sector has been privy to great upheaval and uncertainty, it has been fundamental to the pandemic response and has shown an incredible capacity for innovation, particularly with social media communications. As the different phases of the crisis unfolded, understanding sentiment shift and trends on social media has been key to making the right decisions about the content brands produce and the messages they deliver.



Homebirds Due to lockdown restrictions many consumers have found themselves discovering their inner homebody. Nearly half of the UK were baking during lockdown, growing vegetables, and turning to food for comfort, with biscuit companies expressing 21% growth due to COVID-19. Brands showcased and adopted these trends across social media. For example, activating a user-generated content strategy during this time has been fundamental to boosting brand mentions and encouraging content creation from the social media audience. Brands who did this successfully demonstrated not only an active relationship with their audience, but that they could listen to how consumers were relying on them during this time. This was vital to getting the tone right. The pandemic has also led to a demand for nostalgia, with a surge in interest for goods or brands that provide a sense of control and relief as consumers navigate the new normal. Nostalgic brands pivoted to provide more homefocused offerings to service their consumer base, again listening to the needs of their audience before taking the appropriate action. Independent brands listened to demand for their offering and used social media to quickly adapt and broadcast their business intentions and/or actions. For those without a sophisticated ecommerce platform, social media became the tool to push consumers to take action, showcasing the platforms’ natural commercial ability.

Sparking joy The industry has actively engaged the public to make room for joy and playfulness during these unprecedented times, with the sentiment of ‘joy’ holding 30% of social mentions surrounding the food sector over the last month. One of the few pleasures during this time has been the ability to still enjoy food and drink. Brands have helped to contribute to the positive sentiment, resulting in strong social media engagement from consumers. Launching relief programs through creative means like a ‘nacho showdown’ harnessed the ‘live’ tools of the platform, which have seen an uplift in use throughout the crisis period. With ‘joy’ being majority owned by the food and beverage space, it is important that brands harnessed this strong sentiment and build on their relationships with consumers, carving out their own social space. Brand silence has raised concerns amongst consumers, 27% of the UK assume that brands who have not shared content are experiencing financial difficulties. Some brands were extremely effective in terms of engaging with its audience on social media while their physical stores were closed. A social call-to-arms allowed brands to engage customers directly through humorous direct actions alongside witty commentary. This type of activity kept the brands front-of-mind and ensured that consumers continued to crave their resurgence and the re-opening of physical sites. Analysis for this blog post has been informed by TRUE Global Intelligence’s Weekly Industry Tracker, and other resources from our inhouse Intelligence Team.




‘Let Them Eat Cake’ Food politics in the age of COVID-19 and Brexit



The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of getting the right balance between the quality, cost and availability of food and drink products in any future international trade negotiations. For the first time in several generations, politicians have seen our supermarket shelves run bare and our food consumption habits radically disrupted, whether through the emergence of ‘lockdown diets’ or the number of children accessing free school meals. It’s more important than ever, therefore, that our politicians secure international trade deals that don’t compromise our access to a wide variety of affordable foods produced to high standards. The UK has a great history and tradition of producing food, but we are by no means self-sufficient, and not all our local produce can be produced at scale and economy. Our food and drink shopping basket is a global one, and will remain so. Yet, while consumers put huge value on the price and availability of food, the intense media scrutiny of ongoing trade negotiations has led to increasing activist and consumer calls to protect existing food standards. The ‘chlorinated chicken’ debate has attracted significant attention, with fears that a US-UK food deal might allow cheaper foods with different animal welfare standards to enter the UK. Consumers remain suspicious of different methods of food production, however safe they might be in reality. Can the British public – and politicians – have their cake and eat it? We call for high standards, animal welfare, and locally produced food, but we also want low prices, yearround seasonal variety, and our shelves dependably full of produce whatever time of the day or night we choose to shop. Something has to give – but on what and when? And who within the sector will be the winners and the losers?


The UK government wants to navigate its own way forward on food standards and labelling now we’ve left the EU. But it’s being dragged one way to maintain broad regulatory alignment with the EU so we may continue trading with our neighbours, and dragged another way by our US cousins who want us to align with their different frameworks. A government spokesperson recently stated that an FTA with the USA could bring significant opportunities for the economy including better jobs, higher wages, more choice, and lower prices. With all this at stake, important decisions affecting the food and drink industry could be taken in order to gain leverage on other terms affecting unrelated sectors of the economy. A public petition calling on the government to protect British food standards from ‘inferior foreign imports’ now has around 750,000 signatures and ministers are being lobbied by colleagues in their own party, including senior figures like the Environment Secretary, who have voted to amend current legislative proposals in order to uphold the UK’s existing food standards. Barriers to trade could, however, impose costs and burdens on supply chains that will ultimately limit consumer choice. As the UK enters a deep pandemic recession with household incomes under real strain, does the government really want to be responsible for raising the cost of the weekly shop and increasing the socially distanced line outside local foodbanks? With our direct experience of supporting companies operating in food, agribusiness and beverage – from farm to fork – we can help you tell your story to those involved in these decisions, defending and promoting your corporate reputation and license to operate. There’s never been a more important time for the sector to educate and inform public affairs audiences about the value of the people, processes and products at stake, and to shape the outcome of the 2020 talks.



‘Building Back Better’ embraces diversity & inclusion The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the protests and unrest that followed, occurred towards the end of the COVID-19 lockdown period in the UK. During that lockdown period many discussions were held around how businesses might ‘build back better’ when the UK economy restarted knowing that we would all have to engage with each other on new and unfamiliar terms in an ongoing pandemic. Many of those discussions preceded those untimely and unnecessary deaths and the global momentum of the Black Lives Matter Movement. But now with the UK economy restarting and communities starting to come together again outdoors (and not just online) it seems difficult for the food and drink industry to not think how ‘building back better’ might apply to tackling the diversity and inclusion challenges that exist in the sector.


Whether and how to participate in this conversation requires careful thought and commitment. Organisations must hold true to their values and core beliefs. They must remain authentic and believable. An inappropriate or shallow response in a time like this can be more damaging than no response, bringing negative criticism and unwanted attention. Companies must first determine why they want to engage, whether it is appropriate, and then determine the best manner of engagement.


We recommend these steps to help guide those decisions.

Get good counsel

Listen and show empathy

These situations are incredibly complex and emotional. Make sure you have trusted partners and experts (internal and external) as part of your decision making. Statements you make and commitments you establish should be informed by experts in D&I, ERG and other fields.

Allow yourself and managers to share feelings. Look for ongoing opportunities to foster a better understanding and strengthen your culture.

Recognize this is not about vague statements. This is about what you will do. Do not make a statement simply because others are. Instead, put urgency behind evaluating what you can actually do to address racial injustice. Then determine what you want to say about that. Consider promptly what values and programs you have in place that can guide your actions? When you have something important to say, then it is time to talk.

Align with your values Review previous company statements – internal and external – related to these issues. The response must align with those statements or it will appear hollow and invite negative critique. If there is no defined position on these issues, this could be an opportunity to develop one.

Talk to your employees before you communicate with others Organisations shouldn’t communicate externally if they haven’t already communicated about this issue with employees. What you say externally should reflect what you have already told your most important stakeholders – your own team.

Be specific about your commitments Name what you will do, with as much detail as you have, and how you will do it. Demonstrate how you will be accountable for delivering on those commitments. What you commit to do should be longterm, measurable and consistent with your business – so that it can be sustained.

Think long-term Systemic racism is not going to be fixed by one letter or post on social media. The country and your organisation will be dealing with this issue for a long time. Think of your initial action as the first step in a long journey for your organisation. But, take that first step soon.




What is the sector’s appetite to save the planet? Since COVID-19 started to spread, global warming and climate change have taken something of backseat. However, with many countries – and businesses – now looking to recovery, there is growing emphasis on the need to ‘build back better’ and to consider a ‘green’ recovery. So, what does this mean for the FAB sector? Firstly, many companies in the food retail and manufacturing sector undoubtedly had a ‘positive’ pandemic. After a rocky start, retailers upped their game in taking action to serve customers, protect staff, help communities and keep the nation fed. At the same time the FAB companies – many with disrupted supply chains – evolved and innovated to keep products available and on the shelves. The industry is undoubtedly one of the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. With a huge amount of goodwill and growing sense of trust, there is a real opportunity for the industry to capitalise on its standing as it looks to the second half of the year and into 2021. But what should its focus be and what do consumers want? Just before the pandemic, research conducted by FHF found that the environment was the number one issue that consumers wanted FAB companies to address (68%) followed by health and wellbeing (65%) and skills and workplace training.


UK consumers feel the below are the most important issues for food and drink companies to address:


Sustainable practices/ products / living

65% Diet and well-being


Skills and workplace training


64% 62% 58% 29% Report that government actions to tackle the pandemic have made the environment better off.

Want to see government and businesses prioritise climate change post-pandemic.

Agree that society should address climate change with the same level of urgency it has applied to the CV-19 pandemic.

Report feeling more concerned about the climate as result of CV-19 (whereas 41% saw no change in their concern).

Q: How has the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected your level of concern about climate change? Q: Which statement best describes the impact on the environment caused by the measures put in place by governments around the world to address the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic? Q: I am concerned the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic means issues such as climate change will be ‘forgotten’ in the short and medium term - How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

COVID-19 has done nothing to diminish this. Further research and insight from FHF found that, in fact, the pandemic has deepened people’s climate concerns. The British public wants to see the same level of urgency that society has applied to COVID-19, with an expectation that businesses and government will lead the change. Yet trust in business to deliver is at an all-time low. Just 6% of Brits trust business on climate change with 66% believing that big, structural change is needed from companies to address the issue. If COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that when society pulls together it can tackle a global challenge. But if there is deep mistrust in business to act how does it bridge the consumer expectation gap? First, change the way you communicate. The public wants to hear about the actions taken by business (39%) over their sustainability commitments (32%).


Second, those at the top need to step up. People want leaders and CEOs to talk about climate change and it impact in striking terms. And third, communicate with impact – don’t be afraid to talk about risk and the real and present danger climate change poses. It has been refreshing to see some of the world’s biggest FAB companies signing up to the UN’s Race to Zero campaign, aimed at net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The campaign will shine a spotlight on business leaders, amongst others, in the run up to COP26 – the international climate summit now rescheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow. If the industry has delivered throughout COVID-19 for the people, then the next phase as we all look to recovery needs to be about the planet. The food and drink sector is undoubtably well placed to meet this challenge.


We’re a

FAB agency to work with The world of food, agribusiness and beverage (FAB) is fast moving, complex and fascinating. We have a passion for its products, its brands and services and its people. Our multi- disciplinary team draw on their deep sector knowledge and extensive expertise to help companies and organisations express their brand purpose, shape conversations and manage and mitigate change in line with their values and company objectives. Our understanding of the interplay between brand marketing and reputation management in the FAB sector has FHF well placed to help our clients navigate the complex and ever-changing environment since COVID-19 hit.


Services we offer include: • • • • • • • • • • •

Reputation management Brand marketing Public affairs Crisis and issues management Media relations Strategic partnerships Influencer engagement Social strategy and activation Content creation Events Executive profiling and training


Our recent work in the FAB sector includes: We developed and delivered a multi-channel campaign for one of the UK’s leading industry bodies to secure government support helping one of the principal sectors in the UK economy start trading again following the COVID-19 lockdown.

Earlier this year, we planned to launch a global campaign for a popular food brand. However, the majority of sales were generated through out of home products. We had to quickly re-engineer our existing plans and develop assets that could be rolled out immediately in all markets whilst remaining sensitive to the pandemic and their retail stakeholders.

We pivoted our social content strategy for a global food brand as soon as the pandemic began. New content is turned around in super quick time and we constantly use social listening to help our client deliver socially conscious digital and social communications.



KEEP IN TOUCH Liam McCloy Partner | UK & EMEA Food, Agribusiness and Beverage Lead

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