Food for thought: where next for the UK food and drink sector?

March 23, 2020 will be a date that nobody living and working in the UK now will ever forget. The day lockdown came into force instantly changed our lives on a massive scale, both on a personal and professional level.

Talking professionally, for those of us working in an agency across the PR world, it’s certainly been an interesting time.

At BIG we work across a wide range of different sectors including construction, transport, finance, education, retail, charity and food and drink, to name a few. Every single sector, and every single one of our clients, has been impacted in some way. We’ve been in a privileged position to witness first-hand the different challenges they have faced and the decisions that needed to be made to help them navigate through this difficult period and adapt their communication strategies.

Arguably, one of the sectors that had to adapt the fastest was the food and drink sector. Lockdown quickly reinforced the sector’s importance. Our supermarket staff, producers and farmers were recognised alongside our health professionals and carers as essential key workers.

The first few weeks were nothing short of a rollercoaster. Our supermarkets battled with panic buying, in-store social distancing measures, and buying habits which changed overnight; producers launched recruitment drives to overcome shortages of seasonal workers to harvest crops; and breweries and distilleries responded by putting their skills to good use producing the hand sanitiser so desperately needed in such large quantities.

Now, as we start to tentatively emerge from lockdown, we can reflect on the trends that emerged in the sector over the lockdown period and consider how these are likely to shape its future.

Changes in buying habits

Lockdown has had a major impact in the way people shop for food and drink. In efforts to keep home and reduce contact with others, shoppers quickly defaulted back to ‘the weekly shop’, a habit that had been fast declining. The online grocery market had also shown signs of slowing in 2019, but the pandemic quickly accelerated growth in this market again*. With many consumers now more comfortable purchasing groceries online, we can expect this behaviour to continue.

And it’s not just the supermarkets tapping into the increased demand for online purchases. Many brands, including Heinz and Aldi, have invested in a ‘Direct to Consumer’ (D2C) model. It is likely to become a more accepted retail channel going forward, potentially opening the door to new quick-fire limited editions – think Brewdog’s Barnard Castle ‘Eye Test’ beer….

Increased focus on health and wellbeing

The early lockdown data shows that the nation’s consumption of snack foods went up considerably, revealing a demand for mood-boosting ‘comfort food’ to see us through the early stresses.

But the long-term impact of the pandemic is likely to have a healthier outlook. Google searches featuring the three terms ‘food’, ‘immune’ and ‘system’ together surged ahead in the first two weeks of March 2020, and new surveys are showing that many people, especially those between the ages of 16 and 34 years of age, are looking to improve their diets (Mintel, March 2020).

2019 had already seen a significantly increased demand for vegan food alternatives, with plant-based foods being one of the fastest growing sectors, with health and environmental concerns being key drivers. Food and drink brands that are able to tap into this increased focus on personal health and wellbeing will be in a good position post-COVID.

Belief in brands

Finally, it’s interesting to note the consumer response to brands during the coronavirus pandemic. What we saw was that people started to look for established, traditional brands that they could trust. Mr Kipling maker Premier Foods reported a 10.5% sales increase in March while other brands including Ryvita, Kingsmill, Hellmann’s and Knorr stock cubes also all reported uplifts according to YouGov BrandIndex Data.

Adding to this, we will also see an impact on customer loyalty dictated by how brands have responded to the crisis. Those who made a positive contribution to their local communities, charities, or the wider ‘war effort’ across the country, who protected their staff and really stepped up to the challenge will be remembered. Equally, those who failed to hit the mark are likely to suffer. Reputation is now as important as ever.

Katie Lyle – Account Director

*Source: Office for National Statistics/Company reports and accounts/Mintel