When we look back at 2020, we will remember many things. The boundless baking of banana bread. The endless days of Zoominars. And the many companies that pivoted quickly to support their teams, their customers and their communities.
For me and the corner of the business world that I inhabit – print, packaging and design strategy – I will remember 2020 as the year that e-commerce became more than an ‘also-ran’ and overtook the in-store experience as the preferred way of shopping.
Here’s what that looked like: online sales increased 44 percent compared to 2019, grabbing 21 percent of total retail sales. That kind of growth wasn’t projected until 2022. In-store traffic was down everywhere; Black Friday alone dropped 52 percent. And while a lot of that was due to retail restrictions, it’s actually a change in people’s buying habits that’s predicted to continue – which is why brands are rethinking nearly everything they do to stay in front of a shopper who is no longer standing in front of a store shelf. Here are a few of the strategies that hit the mark and why:
1. Social engagement. The biggest top-of-mind takeaway for brands is: go where the people are. With consumers spending more time on their digital devices, brands are boosting their online engagement to increase awareness. During the second quarter of 2020, e-commerce brands saw a 60 percent increase in acquisition from online channels (62 percent of that from mobile devices).
Importantly, what we’ve learned in 2020 is that social engagement done right is not about pushing product (well, not only about pushing product). It’s about understanding what your customers are going through; being there for them in original ways; and building trusted relationships that create customer loyalty – and then business. In many ways, social engagement and social commerce has replaced wandering around in stores and impulse buying. More on that in a minute.
Scroll through social media and you’ll see brands sharing stories of empathy, humanitarian support, integrity and other values. These are key components of cultivating social engagement and building trust. The idea is, while your followers are following, liking and commenting on your content on, say, Instagram, they’re deepening their connection. When they’re ready to shop, they’ll remember that connection and buy your product. And while this kind of social presence was important for brands before Covid, today, it’s imperative. That’s because the opportunity for consumers to view your products has narrowed to primarily one channel: online.
“I will remember 2020 as the year that e-commerce became more than an ‘also-ran’ and overtook the in-store experience as the preferred way of shopping”
Think back to how you used to shop. People aren’t wandering supermarket aisles; they’re not window shopping in malls or lingering in stores. For lots of people, pre-Covid shopping was a time of discovery, stimulation, people- or product-watching. I myself have been accused of having ‘linger-itis’. So where are people lingering now? On their devices. Scrolling, stopping and shopping has replaced wandering, lingering and impulse buying. Social media is the place where brands are inventing new ways to be with their customers, not merely in front of them.
2. Giveaways, limited runs and cause marketing. Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when hobbies were huge and doing puzzles became a thing? (Apologies to those of you for whom puzzles has always been a thing.) In May 2020, Heinz Ketchup catered to the craze and released a limited edition puzzle. With a nod to its iconic ‘57’ label design, the puzzle contains 570 pieces, all in the color ‘Heinz red’. Dripping with slogan sarcasm, Heinz touted its puzzle as ‘the slowest puzzle on earth’.
Fans couldn’t buy the puzzle; instead, Heinz gave away 57 of them in 17 countries as part of its online contest. To enter, Heinz asked its followers to share on social media ‘who they’d most like to complete the puzzle with’. The campaign was a hit: more than 21,000 comments and 13,000 engagements. Heinz wasn’t selling ketchup; it was empathizing with people who were bored or wanted to connect. It invented something to go where its customers were: home. It built relationships and engagement. This was savvy, agile marketing without selling a thing.
Hallmark also created campaigns to help people feel less isolated during the pandemic. In its first campaign, the company offered to give away one million cards for people to send to a friend or loved one. In just two days, the response was so overwhelming that Hallmark increased its giveaway to two million cards. Like Heinz, Hallmark wasn’t selling anything. It recognized that we couldn’t be with people, that it was difficult to even think about buying a card when we were trying to buy toilet paper. So it made it easy to order a free card online and connect to loved ones. This was completely on brand for Hallmark: cards are a surrogate with Hallmark as the carrier. Hallmark was built on understanding how much this simple gesture can help people feel less lonely. The company continues its consumer engagement by asking followers to share their stories using #CardsDoMore. So far, Hallmark has given away five million cards through its Covid campaigns.
It’s not just the big brands socially engaging. TouchNote ran a similar campaign. TouchNote is an app for people to create custom cards and photo products from their phones. (TouchNote has 26,000 Instagram followers compared to Hallmark’s nearly 900,000). Touchnote gave away more than 23,000 free cards in 2020 to help its followers stay connected with family and friends.
What is the common denominator among these and thousands of other brands’ social engagement content? There’s no sales push. Cards, campaigns, contests, causes – all are proving to be powerful ways to increase brand awareness and stay top of mind by showing consumers that you value their relationship beyond sales.
3. Partnerships. Partnering is another way that brands are staying top of mind, leveraging trends that emerged or surged during the pandemic.
Hershey’s built a pandemic partnership by joining flavors with Yuengling, for a limited-edition Chocolate Porter. Previously, the porter was available only on draft. With bars and restaurants shut down due to Covid, the two brands launched a bottled version that fans could enjoy at home. The new brew offered a different way for people to think about Hershey’s, while the partnership gave Hershey’s a way to expand its audience; to be in front of people in a different category – beyond the candy aisle.
Another reality of stay-at-home orders is that more people have been cooking at home. For some, that meant 2020 was the first year they cooked a Thanksgiving turkey. Talk about pressure! Whole Foods had them covered, though, teaming up with Progressive Insurance to create the Thanksgiving Turkey Protection Plan. Customers who had disastrous turkey results simply submitted a Whole Foods receipt, a picture of the failed turkey (shared on social media, with permission of course), and the story behind the fiasco. The first 1,000 people who filed a claim received a 35 USD Whole Foods gift card.
Partnerships are getting people to think about brands in a different context. I mean, Whole Foods and Progressive? Who would have thought it? It shows that they understood what people were (are) going through.
4. Limited editions. Who knew January 25 was National Opposite Day? Chobani did, launching its #SwitchTheChobaniFlip challenge on TikTok (its first on the video-sharing app). To play, Chobani created a limited edition yogurt container where ingredients were ‘flipped’ – the larger compartment held its new crunchy cookie-dough topping, and the smaller compartment held the yogurt – opposite of its traditional yogurt packaging. Chobanians (yeah, I made that up) entered for a chance to win a case of the not-sold-in-stores yogurt by uploading a video to TikTok with the hashtag #SwitchTheChobaniFlip. The Flip campaign was a hit, with 2.6 billion (billion!) views in the first two weeks. What’s the takeaway? Chobani used its new TikTok presence to connect with new consumers in a fun way. The limited edition product made it even more coveted, along with the fact that you couldn’t buy it online or in stores – you had to engage on social. And the top-of-mind strategy? That when people are choosing which yogurt to put in their Instacart or IRL cart, they’ll choose Chobani.
“The pandemic is driving brands to go where the people are”
As the pandemic surged, lots of brands replaced their typical sales and marketing campaigns with messages of hope and gratitude. Jonas Soda Co, maker of unusual craft soda flavors, and Coca-Cola put their messaging where their labels are. Jonas created 12 different labels for its cream soda, using ideas and photographs submitted by fans (something the soda maker is known for). Coca-Cola’s ‘Together Tastes Better’, an extension of the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign, included 40 different labels supporting everyday heroes such as health workers, teachers and parents. Consumers were able to buy the special-edition bottles in stores for a limited time, or order a custom bottle online to send to the hero of their choice. For me, this campaign went beyond limited editions to reimagining your product. These beverage companies took their ordinary sodas and made them extra special, gift-worthy, a way to show gratitude during difficult days. That messaging only works if it truly reflects the values of the brand; for Jonas Soda Co and Coca-Cola, it does.
There’s more to come
I’m sure we haven’t yet seen all the ways that Covid has affected our shopping habits, nor have we seen all the innovative ways that brands will connect with us. But one thing is certain: ‘build it and they will come’ no longer applies when no one is lingering in store aisles, wandering through malls, or making daily supermarket runs. The pandemic is driving brands to go where the people are. Once the world opens up again, all of us will be keenly watching to see which shopping trends persist; in which ways we go back to our old habits; and if the brands that kept us laughing, cooking, redecorating, gaming and drinking during the pandemic remain top of mind when we roam the aisles once again.