The Covid-19 outbreak presents an opportunity for farms and food businesses to do intentional relationship-building while filling the "trust bucket" they have with their customers, according to Diane Mulligan, an award-winning TV journalist and brand manager who has worked with the Rocky Ford Growers and many other companies in Colorado.
Mulligan was featured on a webinar hosted by the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers with tips on reaching out to customers in the ever-changing Covid-19 environment.
One benefit of the current situation is that people are very receptive to information, she said.
"Your costumers are hungry for information right now," she said. "We're feeling so isolated right now, so it's important to have relationships. You're one of those relationships for them right now."
Most consumers are looking for information related to measures being taken to reduce the risk of viral transmission.
A big one in that regard is how produce is wrapped or bagged.
"Researchers have told us there's not a lot of fear or concern about food transmission, but there is some concern about how it is wrapped," she said.
Research shows you are more likely to catch the infection through the air if you are next to someone infected rather than from a surface. But a widely published study did find that the virus is viable for up to 72 hours on plastics, 48 hours on stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard, and four hours on copper. However, a cell biologist at John Hopkins School of Medicine has also clarified that these traces typically contain less than 0.1 percent of the starting virus material, so while infection is theoretically possible, it is unlikely, especially after a few days.
Providing the latest information and clarifying misleading information is an opportunity for growers and food providers to establish themselves as "thought leaders" who can be relied on for information and advice, Mulligan emphasized.
"There's a lot of disinformation out there," she said. "Be sure to honor what your customer says, but then redirect them to the correct information."
With the situation constantly changing, day-by-day if not hour-by-hour, some businesses are cautious about posting information. But Mulligan said it is fine to make updates and simply present it as the "the latest information."
"If you are there and giving them that information, that shows you're on top of it, and that builds your credibility," she said.
Consumers have many of the same questions as business owners, farmers and their families, so that can also drive communication outreach.
"Refresh yourself on what people are reading and hearing by doing a simple Google search of 'COVID-19 foods,'" she suggested.
Try to anticipate their needs. In the current environment, one idea would be to give customers tips for stretching their food dollar, she said.
In addition to information on procedures and packaging, she also suggested communication should contain lighter material as well.
Always popular are pictures of sunrises and sunsets on the farm, gloved hands holding crops, or videos demonstrating best management practices, which drive consumer engagement, she said.
"Use visuals to show family and friends eating the same food you are producing," she said. "Re-enforce the message that you eat everything you are putting out there."
Other ideas for popular content include tips on healthy snacking, fun graphics and food art.
In an informal poll taken as the webinar began, participants indicated they expected to lose 30 percent of their business due to the outbreak. But Mulligan urged them to try to keep things in perspective and not panic.
"Last week there was research showing that actually the consumption of produce is up by more than a third," she said. "I think that's something really important. Perception is huge."
Stay calm, put the concerns of the customer first, keep messages positive, and ultimately you'll build a stronger brand, she advised.
"Your business can thrive by being the calm and compassionate one," she concluded.
To watch a full recording of the webinar, go to the CFVGA website and look for it under Covid-19 resources.