A New Concern Among Consumers: Brand Safety

COVID-19 has turned an industry term into something far more literal. Will brands continue to promote the safety of their products when the pandemic ends?

By Chris Warren

Michael Austin/theispot.com

These are not the kinds of comments CMOs typically espouse: Norman de Greve, CMO at CVS Health, talked about how the pharmacy chain's leadership team had to pivot from longer-term thinking to build an agile approach that could respond to local conditions. Muriel Lotto, global head of brand and marketing at Western Union, described reviewing all marketing content and pulling back from out-of-home campaigns. Nasdaq's chief marketing and communications officer Jeremy Skule addressed how the stock exchange pivoted its communications to ensure it was staying contextually relevant.

These are just a few of the comments in a recent survey of 26 marketing leaders conducted by branding agency Siegel+Gale that focused on how to navigate the marketing challenges posed by COVID-19.

Before the virus hit, brand safety referred to the growing challenge companies face to ensure that their brand message isn't adjacent to vituperative content online. Although that remains a chief concern among brand managers, the pandemic has lent a more literal meaning to brand safety, with consumers acutely interested in how the products and food they buy are manufactured, packaged, and distributed.

"Safety is getting, and will continue to get, a lot of attention due to COVID-19, especially in how brands ensure their customers' safety," says Brian Rafferty, global director of business analytics and insights at Siegel+Gale.

 

Reassuring Consumers

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) and food companies are leading the charge in altering their marketing efforts to communicate how they're producing and delivering their products more safely.

Restaurant chains like Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, and Chipotle, for instance, emphasize their contactless deliveries and pickups. Pizza Hut has even added a tamper-proof seal to their boxes as a way to tout the safety of an order.

"As we see demand for transparency grow in certain CPG categories in the face of the pandemic, providing it is likely to become table stakes rather than a differentiating feature."
— Amy Rogoff Dunn, partner insights and strategy at the consumer insights and strategy firm Kelton

However, it's not just food and CPG companies that are focused on ramping up safety communications. Brendan Robertson, chief strategy officer at ad agency MUH-TAY-ZIK / HOF-FER, points to the efforts of its client, Audi of America. The company's "Audi At Your Door" initiative is all about reassuring customers that it's safe to interact with the company when purchasing a new car and/or servicing an existing one.

"By making both the sales and service experiences contactless, they are working to keep employees and owners safe," Robertson says. "The experience comes with a detailed list of who has touched your vehicle and the multistep cleaning process taken to keep it sanitary."

Despite the near universal effort among CPG brands and other companies to communicate the safety of their products, there is a contingent of consumers who don't welcome or appreciate it.

"Obviously, and unfortunately, consumers are not uniform in how they are reacting to the pandemic," Rafferty says. "For some, it would appear that any acknowledgement of the pandemic as an issue can be a negative and a purchase-deterrent."

 

Short-Term Reaction or Fundamental Shift?

A major question remains whether this pandemic-influenced expansion of the meaning of brand safety is temporary or something more permanent.

Amy Rogoff Dunn, partner, insights and strategy, at the consumer insights and strategy firm Kelton, says transparency around the safety and sustainability of supply chains was already gaining momentum among CPG companies before the pandemic.

"It's a shift that has been accelerated by the pandemic," Rogoff Dunn says. "Until COVID, offering transparency was seen as somewhat differentiating — think about how KIND bar transformed its category with literally transparent packaging. The watch-out that I'd urge CPG companies to consider is that, as we see demand for transparency grow in certain CPG categories in the face of the pandemic, providing it is likely to become table stakes rather than a differentiating feature."

That means brands need to do their homework about what their customers expect, in terms of transparency and safety, in the future. But that's only part of the equation.

"Go out and understand what your consumers demand in regard to transparency and deliver on that," Rogoff Dunn says. "But continue to build and focus on what makes your brand unique or you'll be left in a sea of sameness a year from now."

For CPG brands, in particular, differentiation may necessitate a new form of certification that communicates how seriously a company takes product safety. "It means that a stamp of approval or similar packaged-based tactics might not suffice," Rogoff Dunn says. "Something akin to a third-party monitoring system might be useful."

 

Growing Need for Collaboration

A challenge —and opportunity — for marketers in both the short and long term is to stay closely aligned with the operational steps companies are taking to ensure their products, employees, and customers are safe.

This isn't easy. In fact, MUH-TAY-ZIK / HOF-FER's Robertson argues that while the first step of creating COVID-19 messaging and signage was difficult, what comes next will be even more challenging. "It's time to reimagine assets that have long been off-limits," Robertson says, pointing to everything from serving sizes to packaging to delivery as examples that need to be recalibrated to ensure and communicate safety.

"This is going to take more than collaboration," Robertson adds. "It is going to finally mean transforming transparency from a marketing term into a corporate imperative. The next stage is proactive, where systemic changes could be here to stay. Safety and transparency are timeless actions that will always help build trust with audiences."

But it won't just happen. Driving systemic changes within a company and then communicating their value to customers is an ongoing challenge.

Reaching the goal requires a shared sense of purpose across an enterprise — not just in marketing and advertising departments.

Indeed, several CMOs who took part in the Siegel+Gale survey cited the importance of having a well-defined brand purpose as they navigate their way through the pandemic and look toward the future.

Petco's CMO Tariq Hassan noted in the Siegel+Gale survey that the company's brand purpose of supporting pet parents, keeping its partners safe, and contributing to the community provides a helpful framework for both its marketing and operations. "I'm glad this is work we had been doing," he said. "Now isn't the time to try and find your purpose."

 


 

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