Navigating CPG Commerce During A Global Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic is a generational event impacting our entire global society at once. There is no precedent for what we are experiencing as governments, businesses, communities and economies around the world try to care for those impacted amidst continued uncertainty of what’s next. But, one thing is increasingly certain — the pandemic is having both an immediate and long-term impact on the relationship between people, brands and retailers — including Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) manufacturers.

CPGs and retailers around the world are facing a new challenge to redefine their marketing playbooks, while simultaneously dealing with exponentially increased demand in some categories, steep declines in others and rapid shifts to new shopping behaviors. For example, over the past few weeks, Kantar reports retailer app downloads have surged — Instacart is up 218%, Walmart +160%, and Shipt +124%.

Marketers around the world have a new, immediate challenge: How can they position their brands and businesses to help consumers and retailers in this time of need? They are actively discussing this question with their clients daily and should use this as a filter to guide their actions.

Here are key principles to help navigate a rapidly changing marketing and retail landscape, while remaining empathetic to the life changes the pandemic is creating:


  1. Strengthen the foundations: As shopping behavior quickly shifts to methods that favor social distancing, like online grocery pickup and e-Commerce, CPGs need to ensure their digital shelf presence and e-Commerce supply chains are optimized. If a product is out-of-stock or not visible as consumers rapidly increase their online shopping, you could be permanently missing in their future shopping trips. Use search, sales and online behavior data to prioritize products consumers are actively seeking — like cleaning products, vitamins, and pantry stock-up items — to ensure they are easily found online, and readily available.
  2. Use data to drive precision: Gaining a near-real-time understanding of shifting channel demands to retarget trade and marketing investments is paramount. It will be challenging in the near term to market at the total brand-level because shoppers are prioritizing basic necessities and de-prioritizing discretionary items. This creates a need to market at the SKU level and use data to monitor changing conditions. Leveraging real-time data also helps brands unlock new ways to offer value, like identifying store locations with an item in-stock.
  3. Focus on Driving Contextual Commerce: Empathy, branding and engagement have never been more important. Marketers must interrogate all messages to ensure they are sensitive to consumers’ rapidly changing lives. But as millions now shelter-in-place, retailers and brands have an opportunity to seamlessly implement purchase opportunities into the behaviors the crisis is forcing us all to adopt. To drive relevant commerce in the near-term during the crisis, CPG brands should look to:

a. Create new usage routines: Working from home, home schooling and the closing of non-essential businesses have upended consumers’ lives. Ironically, families are now eating together more than ever. CPG brands in particular can help consumers establish new household routines with curated recipes, content and activities, while strengthening their customer partnerships with retailer-exclusive solutions.

b. Be contextually relevant: Recognizing different need groups, like college students and workers with children at home, can help determine what to prioritize in promotions, where to deploy marketing messages and how to merchandise products online at retailers. Leverage agile programmatic and targeted media to ensure media dollars are shifted to the channels most relevant to these different groups.

c. Support product innovations and drive trial in new ways: Brands with recent new product launches are being challenged to drive trial in the absence of trusted tools, like in-store sampling and secondary store merchandising focused on impulse purchase — and this challenge is amplified by strained retailer operations. Leverage new ways to drive product trial through offerings like virtual product advisors, sampling in e-Commerce shipments and targeted media driving to channels like online grocery pickup for purchase.

d. Redefine a brand’s role in community outreach and charitable engagement: Retailers are offering health-related education and merchandising in-store and online. National and local grocers are restricting access for the first few hours of operation to the elderly and other high-risk individuals. Brands like Budweiser are already hosting virtual ‘concerts’ raising money for unemployed restaurant workers. Feeding America is mobilizing to raise money and donations for food banks’ COVID-19 efforts nationwide. Shifting consumer engagements and offers to support those affected by this crisis will help our brands engage with consumers in an impactful way, while helping our local communities.

Brands and businesses will persevere by maintaining a willingness to take unfamiliar risks, assist consumers during a challenging period, help retailers get shoppers essential items, and learn at every step to inform how we will act now and in the future.

Bryant Ross, SVP Managing Director of IN Connected Marketing’s Chicago office and client teams, has nearly two decades of experience developing impactful, award-winning commerce programs for top Fortune 500 brands, while pioneering a variety of custom, client-centric commerce agency models and capabilities.

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