The food industry has undergone a massive transformation in just a few months, and the consumer trends that have emerged aren’t likely to subside. Online grocery sales are expected to grow by 40% this year, according to Coresight Research. Another survey found that 32% of U.S. consumers plan to make more home-cooked meals once the pandemic is over.

During our recent webinar, “Navigating the New Digital-First Path to Purchase,” leaders from Kroger, McCormick and Discovery, Inc., home of the Food Network, dished on how they’re navigating new purchasing behaviors by innovating on the fly and transforming their business to meet consumer needs. Here are seven key takeaways from the webinar.

1.     Stop Simply Thinking about Change 

With activities like contactless delivery and online recipe research growing, brands must accommodate changing consumer behaviors. This can be challenging for organizations accustomed to evolutionary rather than transformational change, but the time for talk is over. 

The experts agreed that today’s realities accelerated some of the changes already taking place in the food industry, such as the move to digital. Organizations that stay nimble and innovate quickly are better suited to meet rapidly shifting consumer behaviors. If your organization has been thinking about change but hasn’t taken the plunge yet, now’s your opportunity to dive in.

2.     Show Up Where—and How—Customers Need You

Creating meaningful relationships with consumers was top-of-mind for the experts. These relationships start by meeting consumers where they are and in the ways they need. Of course, what makes sense for one brand might not for another. 

For Kroger, showing up for consumers entails solving for their various need states with, as Jody Kalmbach, Group Vice President, Product Experience at the grocer put it, a “portfolio of the full spectrum of levels of preparedness,” ranging from raw ingredients to fully prepared meals. 

For McCormick, it involves using search insights to generate relevant content so it can be part of the conversation around topics like how to bake bread and what to do with 10 pounds of chicken. In a sign of the times, McCormick tuned into other shifts in consumer behavior like increased streaming to inform its decision to produce digital cooking shows that consumers could stream at home. 

Chris Mainenti, Director of Commerce Strategy at Discovery, Inc., described how the media company reprioritized its content strategy so it could more appropriately address what was going on in consumers’ lives. “From a brand perspective, we sat down in the beginning of all this and said, ‘Look, how can we take a step back on our content calendars that were planned, shift and really put consumers first to make sure we are giving them what they need.’” 

Webinar Replay - Navigating the New Digital-First Path to Purchase

3.     Embrace an Open Ecosystem

Digital-first consumer behaviors indicate that shoppers don’t necessarily care about artificial barriers between brands. What they do care about is a seamless experience, meaning that the more willing brands are to engage with one another, the better suited they are to meet consumer needs. 

“Customers want to engage differently day-by-day based on their need state at that moment,” Kroger’s Kalmbach said. It’s essential that “we’re not shutting doors and really enabling [customers] to meet their needs.”

For example, an aspiring home chef may find a recipe on one brand’s website, then add the ingredients to their cart on a grocer’s app. The lines between who owns that relationship blur, yet the consumer is engaging in meaningful ways with both entities. 

 “We want to be part of the relationship,” said Tom Rowe, Senior Manager, Digital Marketing Operations at McCormick. “It’s naïve to think that the consumer is going to be so monogamous. We have to acknowledge that consumers are going to shop how they want to shop and get information how they want to get information, and we have to adapt to that. Openness is a prerequisite to doing digital in today’s world.”

4.     Want Influencers? Look Internally, Too

If it hasn’t come across by now, how brands show up for customers across their entire journey was a major theme of the webinar. One way to do this is by creating the right content and delivering it in the right way at the right time, but how, exactly, can brands do this? 

As noted in the webinar, consumers engage with and get inspired by multiple sources. They may visit a brand’s website for one purpose, but they also follow (or sometimes simply stumble upon) personalities on the web and social media. These influencers not only provide ideas and how-to, but they can move consumers down the path to purchase. Many brands have forged relationships with influencers who produce content and reach audiences that brands would never have on their own. 

On the flip side, brands shouldn’t overlook internal talent. As part of the content it produced during shelter-in-place, McCormick launched a cooking series featuring its in-house chefs whipping up dishes in their home kitchens. Authentic, influencer-driven content can come from within your organization and resonate with audiences as much as content produced by external partners.

5.     Focus on Shoppability at Every Touchpoint

While producing helpful and relevant content is crucial, with so many paths to purchase available, brands need to provide consumers with a way to act on every touchpoint. By creating shoppable moments whenever possible, brands have more opportunities to turn inspiration into action. To do this, brands must take an omnichannel view of the customer journey.  

Food Network’s bread and butter may be top-of-the-funnel recipe content that inspires home chefs, but through licensing and other partnerships, it’s also there when consumers are ready to buy the instant pot or air fryer they need to complete a recipe. 

Discovery, Inc.’s Mainenti outlined how the network treats every touchpoint as an opportunity to help consumers along the path to purchase, whether or not a specific touchpoint will be a significant revenue driver.

“Shoppability is becoming more and more a piece of the puzzle,” added McCormick’s Rowe. “We want to take people from inspiration to planning—and we’re working with Whisk on that—but then pushing to a shoppable moment. When we get [consumers] to create a plan or use a recipe, we want to get them to that next step, which is purchase. We want to provide all those different services across the journey.”

6.     Get On- and Off-Platform Working Together

Much like the debate between singular communities versus open ecosystems, for the experts on the webinar, there’s not much internal strife over whether product, eCommerce and experience teams should work hand-in-hand with marketing. Still, it’s an area where some brands struggle to shed the silos that prevent them from delivering a consistent and relevant experience across the entire customer journey.

Each panel member detailed how their organization has brought on- and off-platform teams together and how this has improved both relevance and engagement. For anyone managing any part of the customer journey, the experts’ takeaway was that teams must engage with one another to create relevant and, at best, personalized experiences. 

7.     This May Surprise You… 

When it comes to data, there’s little argument that companies like Amazon, Instacart and YouTube hold the reigns. How brands keep up with big data firms is something the food industry will grapple with for years to come, but the panel had what may be for some an unexpected response when asked how they can compete with these players. 

“It’s not about competing with—it’s about working with,” said McCormick’s Rowe. “They have the data. They have the insight into the customer. How do we work with them?”

Rowe and others noted that collecting first-party data is a vital piece of building a one-to-one relationship with consumers. In order to get there, brands may need to work alongside big data companies to capture and eventually leverage consumer insights.  

Creating a personalized relationship with each consumer is the ultimate goal. To achieve this, brands should gather first-party data, and be open to partnerships that  can serve both the brand and its customers.

Want more expert insights? Watch the webinar now to discover best practices for influencing consumers as they move along the path to purchase.