Brand Management in the Age of Covid

What do you do when your products are flying off the shelves, but you have no idea how long that will last? That’s a question faced by American food brand, General Mills, which is dealing with an unprecedented run on its product in grocery stores across the nation.

And that’s not the only question the brand has to consider: What to do about customers who are frustrated because the items they want are not on the shelves when they want to buy them? How does a brand plan for the unprecedented while looking ahead to the inevitable time when the furor dies down?

For General Mills, the first step was to admit that this cannot last forever. Sure, at the moment, customers are currently clearing cereal and dog food and taco meal kits off the shelves faster than the company can manufacture and ship these staple products. However, that buying fever pitch is certain not to last the year. Sooner or later, consumers will calm down and return to their normal buying patterns.

General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening seems to have a good handle on that dynamic, telling the media: “The change of pace on consumer habits has been the likes of which we have never seen… As people look for things they know in times like these, our brands tend to do fairly well, because (they) offer comfort…”

However, that benefit can also be problematic, when consumers look for that familiar comfort, and there’s none to be found anywhere. They may not even be conscious of it, but they attach some irritation to the brand that is not there when they want it. Again, this may not even be something the consumer realizes, but it’s an emotional factor brands need to understand.

Harmening added that his brand is aware of the need for discretion in days like these: “First of all, our messages have to be appropriate for the time… As we look around the world, we have made sure that whatever marketing we have, the messaging is appropriate…”

One message General Mills says that is completely off the table? Anything that alludes in any way to “stocking up” on their products. “(Our message should) connote a sense of normalcy for people as their lives are anything but normal (right now). We have a responsibility to do that.”

From a PR perspective, there’s important wisdom in that idea. Brands need to be cognizant of the shifting dynamics in the marketplace, they need to be aware what their customers are thinking and feeling, then offer messaging that connects with them where they are in a way that offers comfort they may not be getting from staring at an empty shelf where their favorite comfort food used to be.

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