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Four lessons companies have learned in 2020 from serving consumers in distress

In unexpected times of disruption, brands must throw out the old customer playbook.

Four lessons companies have learned in 2020 from serving consumers in distress
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This year, companies and consumers alike faced unrelenting new pressures. At home, people felt the stress of trying to safeguard against COVID-19, juggle work with caring for children and high-risk loved ones, and coping with financial strain. And they relied on companies to help them navigate these unexpected challenges, even while brands themselves experienced many of the same stresses internally.

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At this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, a panel discussion presented by Facebook explored how top brands rapidly responded to consumers’ changing needs, established trust with their audiences, and built goodwill as the crisis unfolded. The lessons they share reveal how companies can play an important role in helping people make it through tough times. Here are four takeaways from their discussion.

1. Aim to solve problems

When COVID-19 hit American cities in the spring, the precautionary measures put a true burden on consumers. One of the most basic human needs—for daily nourishment—cast grocers in a critical role.

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Acting to address public health risks and customers’ concerns became paramount for grocery store chain Kroger. Shoppers needed new ways to get their groceries. They needed features like online ordering, contactless checkout, curbside pickup, and delivery. “Overnight, we literally had to change a number of our capabilities,” said Jody Kalmbach, Kroger’s group vice president of product experience.

Kroger had to be swift and creative to implement sweeping new safety measures and features to help all customers shop safely. At the same time, the company had to remain attentive to individual customers’ challenges, figuring out on the fly ways to address their unique situations. For instance, Kalmbach noted that some customers were either unable to make it to a Kroger location or simply wouldn’t risk going inside public places during a pandemic. For them, measures such as curbside pickup and delivery options could help solve their shopping dilemma. “We got letters from folks saying, ‘You showed up in a way that allowed me to remain safe and healthy and to avoid what was happening on such a massive scale in the country,’ ” she said.

2. Believe in the power of giving back

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Michelle Klein, Facebook’s vice president of global customer marketing, said her company ran a $100 million COVID-19 response grant program across 30 countries to help businesses that were suffering deep losses due to the pandemic. The individual grants amounted to a relatively modest $4,000 but allowed businesses to keep their lights on and continue serving their communities. One recipient—a bilingual teaching school in California—used the funds to help pay its teachers’ salaries for a semester. “It just shows you that as big companies, everything that we can do to ensure we’re supporting as many people, companies, entrepreneurs, and ideas across the world to keep moving forward is most critical,” Klein said.

3. Provide meaningful content

Amid the giant migration to working from home, many parts of our lives moved online—business, education, entertainment, even social connections. As a result, screens quickly dominated daily life in a new way. To counter the negative effects of all-day online engagement, Red Godfrey, vice president of creative at Nordstrom, said brands should proactively find ways to be a positive presence in consumers’ lives. “One of the most sought-after pieces of content we published was a recipe from one of our [in-store] restaurants that was our customers’ favorite,” she said. “They just loved that.”

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Kalmbach said that cooking has taken on a new role for many consumers—more than a necessary chore, it’s become an act of self care. To that end, Kroger has leveraged data to offer personalized content to customers in the form of meal ideas and new recipes. “There’s this trend around cooking meals, and taking the time to prepare it yourself, that we believe is really here to stay,” she said.

4. Focus on the positives

While the events of 2020 have caused stress, grief, and anger, the panelists say it’s crucial to take heart from the positive aspects—from teams coming together to untangle difficult problems to more people expressing care and concern for their neighbors and coworkers. “We have to be optimistic, and we have to take that optimism and apply it to the problems that we’re facing to have a positive outcome,” Godfrey said.

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These bright spots exist at home, where people are appreciating the view outside their window more, Klein said. And they’re also evident in business: A recent Facebook survey found that most small businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic are still optimistic about the future. That survey finding, Klein said, “was rewarding and gave me pause to recognize the spirit of perseverance.”

Customers’ needs and priorities changed dramatically and, in some cases, almost instantly this year. But brands don’t have to lose their connection with consumers in moments of upheaval—in fact, they can deepen relationships and became a resource for people through careful listening, quick action, and creative solutions.

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FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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