Editorial: Eating and drinking in the time of corona

We are fortunate to be able to spend time supporting smaller challenger brands on their journeys. We often feel we learn as much from them as they do from us – they’re a vanguard for fresh ideas and unerring positivity even in these precarious times.

Last week, we were kindly asked by The Seed Fund (sadly postponed until 2021) to share our experiences on a webinar with 20 food and drink founders. We heard them talk candidly about their trials and, more significantly, the opportunities of being a small brand during this upheaval. As ever, their entrepreneurial fortitude shone through.

Buying direct

Above all else, founders spoke about the importance of being multichannel. For those that had invested in diversifying where they sell, most importantly their own websites and Amazon, the loss of revenue from hospitality and food service has been tempered. On the back of strong local awareness and a lack of distribution in supermarkets, craft beer and gin brands in particular are doing well in encouraging customers to buy directly from them.

Over the last few years, consumers have increasingly divided their shopping trips between the big supermarkets for certain products and Aldi and Lidl for others. Brands’ and retailers’ focus on online as a result of Covid will fuel this fragmentation even further. In a recent poll of the team, it was fascinating to see the diversity of places we buy our food and drink, with most of us already avid online shoppers.

The brands we work with have always been very attuned to forming direct relationships with customers online. In our premium natural pet food brands, Forthglade and Barking Heads, sales through their own websites have become a significant part of the business and have been boosted further in the last couple of months. Their digitally savvy teams have been clever in creating different flavours, offers and bundles for online and Amazon to ensure they don’t compete on price and range with their grocery, online multi-brand and independent pet shop stockists (Forthglade even has different branding for them).

In food and drink, pureplay brands are also performing strongly. Demand at our partner brand, Mindful Chef, has trebled while online advertising costs have plummeted. Consumers are gravitating towards premium specialists who do one thing really well – Google searches for meat boxes have shot up threefold and veg boxes fifteen-fold, as have searches for subscriptions in general.

Subscriptions make managing buying from a growing array of brands and channels far easier. In our research last year, 13% of consumers had already signed up to a food subscription in the last two years. Covid will accelerate this further – between March and April on Amazon, there’s been a 150% lift in ‘Subscribe and Save’ sales on Amazon in the grocery category.

Our friends at online premium specialists such as Farmison and Field & Flower (both meat suppliers to Mindful Chef), Pasta EvangelistsBeer52Craft Gin ClubDash, and Oddbox (which delivers unwanted fruit and veg) are seeing similar growth. They are adding much needed surprise and delight to the monotony of the everyday. Although some consumers will revert to old ways, we think many will stay. Loyalty is hard to build but receiving great products from a brand every week should create long-term stickiness.

It’s no surprise that the big strategic trade buyers are also increasingly acquiring brands that have mastered non-grocery channels and can deliver growth online – TailsNaked WinesDirty LemonHint Water and Foodspring are just some examples. Despite the domination of ecommerce in the UK, we have always been staggered by how little (7%) of the grocery market is online. This is set to change quickly and irreversibly – in our national research, in the last few weeks, 32% have switched to buying all or a larger proportion of their food online.

Falling in love with new brands

On the webinar, the founders spoke of receiving a huge number of messages of support from customers wanting to help. In our own research, 39% say that, as a result of Covid, they are purchasing more from independent or small brands. Mighty Small, an online supermarket set up by Young Foodies in response to the crisis, is a great initiative in this space.

For consumers, supermarkets are no longer the destination for discovering new innovative products, and buyers are using Covid as an excuse to further rationalise the number of brands they stock. This brings an even greater emphasis on diversification to channels where consumers unearth and engage with brands.

We see this as a great time to build brand awareness and engagement as consumers seek new products and services to solve problems and enrich their lives. Brands with a strong story and a sustainability focus will win out. It’s an opportunity to hammer home messages on websites that are difficult to do on-pack on a cluttered shelf.

On Amazon, the ‘New to Brand Customer’ has seen a big spike in the last two months as people seek replacements for food and drink that they typically have in restaurants, bars and cafés or when they can’t find their usual products, including immune-boosting food and drink. As flour and yeast supermarket aisles remain empty, our nation of closet bread kneading ninjas has turned to alternative channels.

For many food and drink brands, brand building is as much about distribution as marketing. Farm shops, including pubs that have temporarily turned into them, have become local lifelines. For our partner brand, Proper, their single bags in high footfall small supermarkets, convenience stores, coffee shops and train stations drive brand awareness and trial. At this time, They are doing a great job in supporting these places for when they reopen.

Less commuting, more downtime

Although many will look forward to going back to work, Zooming from home will become one the most fundamental long-term transformations. This will drive the change in eating and drinking behaviour in the process. Home snacking and convenience food to replace lunchtime trips to Pret will gain traction. Whether you see Pot Noodle as a snack or a meal, it has experienced a huge uplift in sales over the last month, as has Asian meal kits brand The Spice Tailor.

Home working should also drive more sales in local stores. A Which? study shows 28% are currently buying more locally than they used to. The trend towards smaller more regular shopping trips will accelerate. Covid may be the boost our local high streets need in the long run.

The hours spent commuting will be redirected towards nurturing hobbies and relaxation, including healthier scratch cooking and social drinking. In our research, 27% are buying more alcohol these days and Google searches for cocktail recipes have tripled. On Amazon, alcohol sales are breaking Christmas sales records, with gin the clear winner. ‘Drink o’clock’ has shifted considerably earlier.

They may also find more time to tend their crops. Amazon has seen a surge in people buying herb and vegetable seeds. Green shoots are on the way – at least in our gardens.

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