In the midst of this global pandemic, the acknowledgment that we’re all human — and currently facing the same challenges together — has never been more critical. As brands work to engage, convert, and build trust and loyalty with consumers, invoking that kind of human-first approach will be essential.

“For everyone, not just suppliers, I think such an important point is the human element of all of this,” Valassis VP of CPG Sales & Strategy Meggie Giancola said. “We are, yes, all in the CPG industry together in one way or another; whether it’s supplier, manufacturer (or) retailer. But we’re all humans first, and we’re all Americans, and we’re all being impacted by what’s going on, and it’s scary.”

Finding a way to calm that universal fear within consumers was at the heart of the Path to Purchase Institute’s “Ask the Experts” virtual chat on March 31. The panel — moderated by Institute Editor-in-Chief Peter Breen and attended by Coca-Cola’s Vice President of Shopper Marketing April Carlisle and TPN Chief Growth Officer Sarah Cunningham — examined customer engagement in the age of COVID-19.

The human element rests at the heart of shopper engagement, a notion the panel kept reiterating throughout the discussion. The coronavirus pandemic has pulled consumers out of their everyday routines, wreaked havoc on our economy, and created global uncertainty.

The antidote brands can bring to combat these problems is normalcy. A modified status quo that reminds buyers of the not-so-distant past while acknowledging the human realities of the present. How can companies keep that human element top of mind during this unprecedented time?

Here are four places to start:

1. Keep the messaging grounded. Information ebbs and flows by the minute in our current culture — a likely reason Cunningham remarked that society is living “press conference to press conference” at the moment.

How does this translate to communicating with customers?

It means taking your messaging to their mediums and to their wheelhouse to create a personal and relevant dialogue.

Sometimes, that means adapting the message to a specific medium. Recent Valassis research discovered that consumers collect more information than ever before from their mobile phones, but they spend more time in web browsers than apps. This means messaging optimized for and targeting mobile web browsers might resonate with the right people at the right time.

Other times, something as minor as a swapped pronoun can engage consumers in a previously unseen manner. Marketers and advertisers have taken on a decidedly inclusive tone recently by peppering “us” and “we” into their copy to acknowledge the global impact of COVID-19. When “we’re all in this together” appear on screens and in print, segmented messaging gives way to a universal discussion that everyone feels in one way or another.

In Coca-Cola’s case, humanizing their messaging involves putting a new spin on an old standby. Carlisle recalled the company’s observation that home cooking has been less experimental since the pandemic began. The beverage distributor is staying relevant to buyers by applying a “down-home” approach to its established “When only a Coke will do” slogan.

“Coca-Cola products have always been synonymous with great food occasions, and we were looking at meal preparation and recipe content for this year,” Carlisle said. “We’re rethinking some of those things for ‘When only a Coke will do,’ but that meal might look a little different than it did even a month ago.”

Messaging is among the first things consumers see related to a brand. The best way to humanize those brands is with a down-to-earth message.

2. Re-examine logistical approaches. Logistics and supply chain represent that all-important go-between from brand to provider. There is also a human component to the logistical stage, which brands must recognize and adjust to during this pandemic.

Cunningham championed the need to embrace more agile logistical practices to add a human element to logistics and supply chain. That means communicating across departments and keeping all links in the chain updated so they can do the same for customers.

“(Supply chain workers) are human and looking for information just like we are,” Cunningham said. “They’re experiencing this in their households just like we are, so they need help crafting their responses (to customers).”

Cross-departmental dialogue can also help brands tweak their messaging so they don’t overpromise. Cunningham called consumer urgency to stock up on supplies “the storm scare that never ends,” something companies like Clorox have factored into their messaging. The cleaning products brand is keeping the human element central by discouraging customers from “pantry loading” to make sure as many customers as possible can access Clorox offerings — and to alleviate the pressure on supply chains and retailers to keep products in stock.

“Being able to be agile and respond is important because retailers’ number one priority right now is bringing products to shelves,” Cunningham said.

3. Retail in real time. The Valassis Consumer Graph™ collects and analyzes billions of real-time behavioral and location signals to help monitor trends, note patterns, and support brands’ omnichannel strategies. With the fluidity of the current landscape, an asset like the Consumer Graph helps inform brand managers about where their efforts are most effective, least impactful, and ordinary.

The graph, for example, can integrate with supply chains to understand product volume and inform brands where restocks and refocuses might be needed. Retailers are scrambling to keep their shelves full, as Cunningham said, so any up-to-the-minute information that can help them keep up with demand is crucial.

E-commerce is currently booming due to location restrictions and the need to practice social distancing. Customers are using brand apps and websites to shop, dine, and generally live their lives, and real-time information can help inform those touchpoints to be of better service to customers. Real-time data is the most human of details because it’s in the moment. Leveraging data puts retailers in the trenches with customers and ready to pitch in however they can.

“Brands have an opportunity to be either a hero or to hurt consumers if a consumer walks into a store and a product is not available,” Giancola said. “So (real-time data) is something that is absolutely critical when we look at how to market to the current situation.”

4. Renew focus on coupons and incentives. With unemployment estimated at about 13% and a recession looking likely, consumers still have needs — they just lack the means to acquire them. Coupons can be a bridge for downtrodden customers to get the things they need to support themselves and their families.

Valassis’ partners with retailers to publish and distribute their coupon circulars — according to Giancola, the vast majority of retailers are moving forward with their printed circulars.1 This is important because 83% of shoppers actively look for some kind of coupon or incentive to lighten their financial load.2 Coupons are a simple way for brands to personalize their product offerings to keep customers stocked up on the brands and products upon which they rely.

“Coupons, historically, are used to gain category brand shares and switchers and all these elements,” Giancola said. “Right now, I think the importance that coupons and promotions and incentives play is providing that human element back to consumers. It’s an easy way to communicate back to the consumers that we care about you and we’re thinking about you.”

That conscientious mindset will be a common thread among brands that ultimately survive the COVID-19 downturn and thrive afterward. This pandemic affects all social classes, demographics, and family structures in one way or another because we’re all human.

To maintain that human element, it can be helpful to heed Carlisle’s words: Brands are “here to serve, not here to sell.”

Click here to view the entire discussion and learn more about humanizing your customer engagement strategies during COVID-19.


1. The New York Times, “The Unemployment Rate Is Probably Around 13 Percent,” April 3, 2020

2. Path to Purchase IQ, “Despite Pandemic, Shoppers Still Look for Deals, Preferred Brands” March 20, 2020