As the coronavirus upends industries from travel to restaurants, the consumer packaged goods sector finds itself in an advantageous, but potentially more complex, position than most. Sales of essential household goods and packaged foods are strong as people pantry load and seek comfort during the pandemic, but key marketing levers are shut off, halting strategies and possibly forcing a pivot to new methods of outreach.

“CPG companies are thoroughly confused right now about how to behave, and as a result, a little bit paralyzed,” Don Abraham, a senior partner at Kantar’s consulting division, told Marketing Dive. “All of their retail and promotional strategies are up in the air right now. The retail environment right now is completely different from anything anybody’s ever seen before.”

The pandemic’s public health and economic consequences — namely what’s shaping up to be a potentially deep recession — will leave a long-lasting imprint on consumer behavior that could fundamentally alter marketing for the category in regards to everything from engagement to localization and retail partnerships. CPG marketers must prepare for those potential scenarios and build brand equity now, experts said, or risk losing their current gains and sense of stability as the economic situation worsens and a panic-buying period cools.

“If [CPGs] go dark and start to pull all marketing dollars, their road back is going to be more expensive,” Marta Cyhan, CMO of shopper intelligence firm Catalina, told Marketing Dive. “It’s almost like, if you’ve got momentum now with the business, it’s more about how to maintain it.”

Keeping the lights on

Hesitance from CPGs to push hard on marketing during the pandemic is understandable and influenced by a number of factors, including a focus on supply chain issues around getting enough product to store shelves. Messaging is another minefield as consumers express wariness toward brands perceived as capitalizing on a crisis and are extra sensitive to anything that could be associated with the coronavirus.

“Most CPG companies are fundamentally frozen at the moment waiting for a sign that, a) it’s okay to do any sort of advertising and promotion, and b) they can’t push people to store, so they’re also struggling with what they are encouraging consumers to do,” Abraham said.

Some CPGs also might simply not feel the need to do much marketing at the moment. Amid a consumer rush to stock up, sales for the category jumped 21% in the week ended March 28 compared to the year-ago period, per Nielsen data shared with Marketing Dive. Toilet paper sales alone were up nearly 50%.

“CPG companies are thoroughly confused right now about how to behave, and as a result, a little bit paralyzed.”