The New Grocery Landscape: 3 Key Actions Marketers Should Take to Deepen Customer Connections

emotional health

In the past weeks, we’ve been meeting people across the U.S. and the U.K. to understand how different groups navigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: social distancing, curtailed activities, distance learning, home-schooling, and full-time working-from-home.

Cultural Context

As of this writing, California (where I am) is moving into its sixth week of mandated shelter-in-place and school closures. As consumers settle into the changing social landscape, the shock of the “new normal” seems to be wearing off. Consumers are looking to longer-term adaptations to balance “life is totally different” with “life goes on.” Amazon is resuming regular shipping of “nonessentials,” and consumers are branching out from Zoom to new videoconferencing platforms to find their favorite.

David Kessler, an authority on grief and the co-author of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss spoke recently in the Harvard Business Review, likening responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to the grieving process. Though he is at pains to remind us that the stages aren’t linear or easily-ordered, he notes that the traditional “last step” in the grieving process is acceptance, which he summarizes as realizing, “This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”

I can’t help but recognize this attitude in my interviews with grocery shoppers this week. Especially in categories requiring weekly or bi-weekly involvement (like groceries), consumers recognize that they must adapt and move forward. They’re looking for ways to normalize and routinize their habits to make the task as easy and safe as possible.

Higher order benefits

For categories like grocery, sociological models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provide a useful analytical model to frame consumer behavior. Prior grocery research has informed our understanding of higher order needs pre-COVID (see Figure 1). Our interviews point to a very different set of concerns and priorities now. In short, the current environment hits at the very core of our need for safety, at our need for community and belonging, and at our need to feel accepted, accomplished, and worthy of respect.

cultural context covid19
Figure 1: Needs hierarchy for grocery

Calling for reassurance and action

These three points of disruption indicate systems of meaning that brands and marketers must seek to reinforce and deepen. Doing so will serve a common good while also strengthening emotional connections with customers.

1. Safety

Brands must acknowledge the safety concerns plaguing grocer shoppers. Marketers should look for opportunities to reassure consumers and communicate creatively about ingredients, provenance, sourcing, or even origin stories that humanize the brand and connote product safety.

Brands demonstrating quality, safety, and care are more likely to be perceived as safe, strengthening customer relationships and emotional connections.

2. Belonging

We have recently published research that shows consumers are asking important questions about the status of our common social fabric. On a personal level, as they practice social distancing, navigating around other mask-wearing shoppers in the aisles, community connections feel more tenuous.

Marketers should be looking for opportunities to reinforce community connections and a sense of belonging through common causes, communication, and reinforcement of shared goals, experiences, and struggles. Acting as a facilitator of community connections positions brands for better long-term relationships and customer loyalty.

3. Esteem

Shoppers are keenly aware that, as much as they may distrust other shoppers, they are also objects of others’ distrust. A lack of clear standing among one’s community directly erodes individuals’ sense of identity, accomplishment, or esteem.

This creates opportunity for brands to deepen trust and strengthen customer relationships. Marketers should look for ways to give customers something to rally behind, and brands should be taking authoritative, decisive positions on causes and issues customers care about. Shoppers who find common ground with trusted brands are more likely to feel affirmation and a positive sense of self.

Shoppers are uncertain about the future and are increasingly preparing for prolonged fears and adjustments. Brands can act now to deliver on both basic and higher order needs to reassure consumers, connect empathetically, and create long-term emotional connections.


Maru/Matchbox is keeping a finger on the pulse of how businesses and consumers are managing during the pandemic. For more resources, be sure to visit our COVID-19 research hub.

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