As COVID-19 germinated the world, the need for adaptability became increasingly important. Pivoting quickly became compulsory for companies looking to survive. Leadership learned to set long-term goals aside and address new issues with the acceleration of guitar hero aficionados. General managers were forced into the weeds to rework operational procedures, don sales and marketing hats, while instituting broad new protocols to keep people safe. “What is this week going to bring?” became the Monday morning mantra of the C-suite to manage the chaos created by COVID.
E-commerce quickly became the only commerce for many. Companies with stateside manufacturing were able to leverage a patriotic selling point as a survival tactic. And, over-communication directly with customers, sales organizations, and operational teams became the standard protocol to lead successfully through the ever-changing crisis.
If your business was deemed essential, you had some flexibility to manage the mayhem. As our company, PlantFusion, provides plant-protein supplements, our manufacturing facility never closed. But it took a few major pivots and some timely pre-pandemic planning to do more than just survive.
Amazon’s sales and profits soared in consecutive quarters in 2020, but companies relying on brick-and-mortar retailers for the majority of their profits had a different tale to tell.
The amount of pressure to increase e-commerce was significant. We sold products on Amazon, but Whole Foods was also a major customer. While we typically would ship product to Amazon to fulfill orders on our behalf, the strain was so acute due to the surge at their centers, that we began to fulfill orders directly from our own warehouse. We were micro-managing inventory down to the SKU level, and I was having conversations directly with our production staff, as well as our suppliers and distributors.
In the natural products industry, Expo West is the most important trade show of the calendar year, and it was scheduled in March. There was escalating anxiety about COVID, and organizers were slow to give direction, so we pulled out. What followed was a coming together of the industry, and lots of conversation about how to reach buyers and customers without the pinnacle annual event.
The decision was also the catalyst to move immediately to remote work for office staff, while adapting manufacturing to manage new shifts and safety protocols. In June, restrictions began to ease up in New Jersey, and after maintenance erected needed shields and barricades, we were back to the office with new safety protocols of our own. We were better for it—able to deal with issues and make split decisions regarding allocating inventory, and solve problems more quickly.
Plan for Success
Our primary product line is plant protein supplements, but in 2019, we launched a vitamin/mineral line. By the end of 2019, interest in immunity products, like vitamin C and elderberry, skyrocketed. With the arrival of COVID-19, we found ourselves at the intersection of a few trends (plant-based products, vegan offerings and immune support). We struggled to keep up with demand without overselling inventory. Our “Purity Promise” became increasingly valuable to customers looking to maintain or improve their health while isolating.
Redefine Business Success
Business success is traditionally defined by financial metrics like sales and profitability, but during this pandemic, the spotlight shifted to the broader objectives of providing value to customers while growing the brand. We have had to reevaluate how we get our message to customers, and how we get product into their hands. Is the growth in e-commerce and decline in retail, permanent? It has been difficult to adjust to meet the challenges of COVID. How do you set up for a better 2021?
We discontinued a product line that was 15 percent of our plan so we could focus on sourcing ingredients to meet demand for other products. In the natural products space, trade shows are huge, but we reallocated the funds that were not being spent traveling and invested in the development of subscription boxes for our customers. As costs per click continued to climb with the increased demand for digital advertising, we produced an ad for cable television to reach customers in a new, old way.
Lessons Learned During the Pandemic
The demand for authentic, consistent messaging across channels remains vital for brands. However, we must pause to reflect as we plan our path forward: Assess the pivots made, reevaluate our business, redefine what success looks like, and adapt our plans accordingly to be effective. As business leaders, what have we learned?
- Adjust to an operational mindset, and focus only on short-term shifts.
- Start the week knowing that whatever you may have planned is likely to change.
- Pay attention to your customers, vendors, suppliers, etc.
- Redefine business success.
- The path less traveled may be better than jumping on the bandwagon.
- Check in with your team — regularly.
- Reclaim your mission and remind your organization what you stand for.
- Try new approaches to see what works.
- Turn off Zoom when you need to.
- Gratitude always.
Melissa Feldman WG01 is the general manager of PlantFusion, a company obsessed with offering authentic, 100 percent plant-based, nutrient-dense, allergen-free products that delight the senses and provide complete nutrition. She previously held marketing leadership roles at CPG giants Kraft, Wrigley, and Mars, and spearheaded global innovation efforts for some of the world’s best-loved brands.