For most, the motivation for helping is simply to do good, but in many cases, these efforts also will generate gratitude and goodwill that likely will translate to increased brand awareness, consumer and staff loyalty, and higher sales long after the current restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are lifted.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, we take a closer look at how a handful of companies, including Unilever, Icelandic Provisions and So Good So You are helping their communities while keeping their staff safe, meeting their current heightened business obligations and planning for a future beyond the current pandemic.
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A shifting landscape
While all Americans are feeling the strain of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the extreme measures necessary to slow its spread, many food and beverage industry players are shouldering a disproportionate share of the emotional, economic and physical burden.
As Jostein Solheim, the executive vice president of foods & refreshment for North America at Unilever explains, most CPG companies and retailers are considered “essential businesses,” and as such their employees continue to go to manufacturing facilities, picking and packing warehouses and retail stores each day despite the threat of exposure.
“This is a unprecedented event and tragic on so many levels. A tragedy from a human health and human safety point of view and super challenging for our healthcare services and our frontline healthcare providers around the world. And, it’s a hard time to run a business,” Solheim said.
He explained that CPG companies are “right in the middle of it” as consumers continue to pantry load and spend more time at home taking care of families.
“So, that has put enormous pressure on our retail partners, on their logistics systems and all the amazing people that stock the shelves, that deliver products to the grocery stores and to our own manufacturing and manufacturing staff,” he said.
Unilever’s United for America
Based on Solheim’s description, one could easily argue that many CPG companies and employees are doing more than their fair share to keep society functional during the pandemic, and yet, Solheim said that many Unilever employees wanted to do more, which is how the company’s United for America initiative was created.
The initiative includes donating $8m worth of food and products to Feeding America, which operates 200 food banks and reaches about 40m Americans. Unilever also donated 200,000 face masks to hospitals in the New Jersey area.
The company also is exploring a national day of service on May 21 with the goal of serving communities in need and raising awareness for its NGO partners. While the details on how to hold the day’s activities safely are still being worked out, the company estimates it will donate an additional $12m of support through products and services.
Brands of all sizes step forward
While not all companies can direct as many resources to the pandemic as Unilever, brands of all sizes are doing what they can to support their community. For example, the emerging brand So Good So You, which makes functional beverages, including a cold-pressed juice Immunity Shot with a healthy dose of organic ginger, orange juice and 1 billion colony forming units of probiotics, recently launched a Healthcare Hero Initiative.
Company co-founder Rita Katona explains the company is sending nominated healthcare workers care packages with its products, including its immunity and energy shots. She added that the initiative embodies the company’s core belief that people can do more together than as individuals and that the products they offer are for the love of body and planet.
These are just two examples of the many approaches that CPG brands are taking to support their communities through donations and service. Check out how other brands are donating product and services during the pandemic in our accompanying gallery.
As admirable as it is that so many CPG companies and their employees want to go the extra mile to support their communities on top of meeting increased demand, none of it is possible if staff are not kept safe – which is why supporting workers comes first and foremost for all the brands featured in this podcast and most of the other food and beverage players in the industry.
For So Good So You, company co-founder Eric Hall explained protecting its employees meant sending home those who could work remotely, and for those who could not changing the way they interact with each other to allow for physical distancing.
For example, he said, the company modified its product capabilities to follow social distancing guidelines. This included increasing hours, increasing capacity, increasing sanitation but also slowing production to ensure these all could be met safely. In addition, the company created staff teams of two to limit contact and rearranged its break room to encourage social distancing and sanitization.
The company also has hired several temporary employees who were laid off in the restaurant industry “to bridge from where they are today to when that restaurant reopens,” Hall said.
Icelandic Provisions focuses on mental health
Like So Good So You and many other CPG manufacturers, employee safety and health also are a top priority at Icelandic Provisions. But as the company CEO Mark Alexander notes, Icelandic Provisions is not just worried about employees’ physical health, it also is looking for ways to nurture them emotionally and socially at a time when many Americans are anxious, lonely and unsure of the future.
Alexander notes their mental health was a big motivator behind Icelandic Provisions’ weekly donation of about 30,000 cups of its high protein, low sugar yogurt-like skyr to City Harvest in New York and other charitable efforts.
“Our employees desire to do something. You know, we are all stuck at home. We feel sometimes a little helpless in terms of what we can do, and so this is a strong, employee-driven way … to give something back,” Alexander explained.
Beyond donations, the company is encouraging and supporting other employee giving efforts, such as providing bags of groceries for hospitality workers who are struggling with the restriction of restaurants and foodservice to takeout and delivery.
Solheim explains that Unilever also has provided its employees’ with an extra layer of support since the beginning of the pandemic by offering added financial protection from sudden drops in wages and pay.
Building brand awareness
While most of these efforts come from an altruistic foundation, a side benefit for companies supporting their community during the pandemic is a chance to either introduce their brands to new consumers or remind them of the products they offer.
For example, Katona and Hall of So Good So You explain that donating product doubles as a sampling effort that they expect will pay off in the long run, if not the short term.
“The company is a couple of years old now, and we are still in rapid growth mode,” she said. “We are certainly cognizant of the fact that getting these products into people’s hands may present an opportunity for future conversation when they see our product with its iconic green heart on the packaging at their grocery store on their next shopping trip. …. Hopefully, it left a warm fuzzy feeling with them that we donated product during a time of crisis and that we were a helper, and hopefully they’ll tell other people about that feeling. So, this is very much a long game, and not something we are expecting an immediate ROI on.”
For established brands, donations and outreach are a way for legacy companies to remind consumers not just of the products that they offer, but as Solheim at Unilever notes, also the foundational values of those brands.
Building a new business model for the future
While the upheaval caused by the coronavirus has many brands in fire-fighting mode, Icelandic Provision’s Alexander also sees the current chaos as a chance to reevaluate old and new business approaches, including ecommerce.
“We remain extraordinarily bullish about the future,” but also realistic that the restrictions in place now could continue for months, “or God forbid, even a year,” Alexander said. “So, we’re also thinking about how do we want to pivot and change things?”
One option is to invest more heavily in e-commerce for the long term, but also continue to watch how consumers adapt and adapt with them, he said.
Before those predictions of a bright future can come true, though, the industry – and everyone – needs to get through the current crisis. And as everyone has heard over and over, the best way to do that is together, which is why each of these brands are calling on others in the industry that have not already done so to do what they can to help the many who have lost jobs, have reduced incomes and reduced access to food during and after the pandemic.