According to Plato, necessity is the mother of invention. To say that the arrival of COVID-19 has forced us all to find innovative ways to manage our lives and work as we know it would be an understatement. Even though 2020 was a bleak year for global economic growth and business, and marketing efforts have had to quickly shift gears to keep up, all hope is not lost.

Field marketing efforts, which depend on personal connections to target buyers, have been particularly challenged by the pandemic. However, even though in-person meetings, demos, and events have been temporarily put aside, other opportunities to connect have emerged in their place.

Kari Morris, Co-founder of Reimagine Foods and Founder of Morris Kitchen, offers a prime example. “In 2020, we launched Fämily Foods with a DTC model focused on plant-based pantry staples. It was brought to market with influencer Rachel Brathen (@yoga_girl), who brings authenticity and a true brand story to a captive and existing audience,” explains Morris. “With this partnership, we have a built-in marketing strategy that doesn’t rely on retail or brick and mortar to scale. It was also incredibly important this year for us to put everything into perspective, and not come in with loud or tone-deaf messaging.”

Shifting gears was also top of mind for Elana Effrat, Director of Marketing at One Eight Distilling. “While typical liquid to lips marketing tactics are almost non-existent these days, the virtual space has been a focus. Virtual tastings, personal calls, and messages are more important than ever,” she notes. “At One Eight Distilling, we offer a tasting kit to accompany a virtual tasting with one of our distillers. The kit has 50 ml samples of the District Made Spirits Range, in addition to at least one special Untitled release. We’ve also been lucky to be participating in the farmers market on Sundays in Dupont Circle. While we can’t provide samples, we can still offer the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations.”

Although virtual experiences and interactions are becoming effective in brand building and customer relationship management, that doesn’t mean the pressure to have a presence and enhance personal connections is any less important. In fact, those aspirations are more critical than ever. “We tapped into these communities and involved them in the co-creation of new products. We saw a ton of engagement from our audiences, and people had a strong sense of what and how they were shopping and cooking at home,” says Morris. “We were able to innovate quickly and bring a baking mix to market at a time when people were baking and cooking more at home and looking for truly clean and plant-based foods that they can order online. While we do have retail slated for Fämily Foods, it became clear to us that the timeline for putting efforts behind this strategy was not now.”

While online interactions don’t replace human connection, says Effrat, they have also been effective on her end in maintaining relationships and building brand awareness. “Now that everyone is playing in this space, the competition is more intense,” she explains. “Brands really need to focus on one message that they’d like to get across and stick to it. The noise online is very loud, and people are becoming fatigued from being online, on-screen, and on the phone. I try and keep this at the front of my mind when sending an email or posting something on one of our social channels.”

Because so many people are home — and essentially a captive audience in many ways — we have to wonder if it’s become easier or more difficult to educate and influence consumer purchase decisions. “In terms of connecting and making connections,” says Morris, “We have found through our networks and with video calls we have been able to stay connected with the people that are truly valuable to our business.”

For Effrat, nothing will ever replace the advocacy of people behind the bar or at a store. “Seeing someone’s enthusiasm for what they are tasting or recommending is hard to capture virtually,” she explains.

“During times of stress, people are more prone to reach for what they know will comfort them versus trying something new. Small brands with limited marketing dollars have always been challenged by name brand recognition and resources. That hasn’t changed.”

But one thing has: Effrat has seen more focused goals within the marketing funnel on what the expectations are for each level of the customer journey. Hopefully, it will lay a strong foundation for better days to come.

This article is part of an editorial series powered by PINATA, a flexible, data-driven platform where brands, agencies, and freelance talent collaborate to create elevated consumer experiences.