When COVID-19 first surfaced in North America, it evoked in consumers tremendous fear and anxiety: How does the virus spread? How can I protect myself and my family? How will it impact my life? These are questions we were all asking—and the organizations around us didn’t always have the answers. So they responded as well as they could under the circumstances, delivering messages of reassurance and support while scrambling to adjust internal processes and supply chains.
Healthcare and grocery in particular were thrown into the centre of the covid spotlight. Healthcare providers reeled under the weight of a highly contagious pandemic, and their communications reflected that, with severe warnings about staying home, social distancing, signs of infection, and increasing rates of infection. Messaging was purely functional—and it had to be.
Grocery retailers, meanwhile, were reeling in a different way: Panicked consumers were emptying store shelves—often as a result of fear-based rumours—and retailers couldn’t keep up. Product availability quickly became the number-one purchase driver, superseding brand loyalty and any consideration for the in-store experience. Communication was all about what was in stock, and whether the store offered curbside pickup.
Now, as more time passes and our experience with the disease increases, our social support systems and supply chains are getting better at operating under covid-induced protocols and practices. We know we are not out of the woods yet, but we also know a lot more about how to safely live and work in the face of COVID-19. We have developed better systems for testing. We are not quite as anxious about getting access to personal protective equipment. We are learning how to provide essential services more safely. We are pretty certain we will not run out of toilet paper. It is all becoming just a little more routine, and we are better able to anticipate and control the events surrounding it.
It’s time for our communications to reflect this reality. And that doesn’t mean instilling false hope or encouraging people to take risks; it means communicating more transparently with consumers so they know what to expect.
In healthcare, this translates to more active communication of how testing infrastructure has changed and improved, and how many more tests are being carried out now (daily, weekly) compared with two months ago. Again, it is not about messages of false security—rather, it is about reminding the public that their tax-funded healthcare systems are adapting and working.
For grocery retailers, it’s more about regaining control of messaging that has tended to spiral out of control because of fear and social gossip. There are still rumours circulating about impending meat and produce shortages. While actually controlling these shortages is a pretty tall order, retailers can respond to them more strategically. For example, when faced with recurring stockouts, they might provide thoughtful suggestions for alternatives that speak directly to the problem at hand: “While we’re experiencing intermittent out-of-stock on ground beef, could we suggest ground turkey instead? Try “beefing it up” with flavour enhancers like Worcestershire, BBQ sauce, and even liquid smoke. Check out our recipe!”
Because bad news tends to spread more quickly than good, the headline-grabbing alarmist communications associated with the pandemic have often travelled wider and faster than the follow-up communications providing solutions.
Grocery retailers and healthcare organizations are now in a position to begin reversing that trend.