Leading with Empathy When Shelves are Bare

The nationwide baby formula shortage has stimulated a host of emotions that range from stress, concern, fear, frustration and outrage. It has triggered the U.S. government’s crisis response, including facilitating emergency shipments of baby formula from Europe and Australia, and a military airlift to ensure that the products get to those in need.

Empty shelves in a grocery store

The recent re-opening of Abbott’s Michigan manufacturing facility stimulates hope that the baby formula shortage will soon be solved. However, many people throughout this crisis were looking for someone to blame, with Congress and the Federal Trade Commission having launched several investigations into the causes.

But what we’ve learned is that the situation is extraordinarily complex. Many in leadership – formula manufacturers, President Biden, former President Trump, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and numerous links in the supply chain – have been cast as the villain. Regardless of who is to blame, the fact remains that two infants have died; parents are having a difficult time feeding their infants; and low-income consumers who depend upon WIC programs are among the most vulnerable.

Consumers are reasonably stressed and seeking information to make an informed decision or help to navigate this unprecedented situation. How baby formula manufacturers respond to the shortage will affect their reputation for years to come, regardless of if they are part of the problem or a victim of it.

Based on our dealings with clients in product shortage crises, here are key considerations for effective communications during an essential product shortage that is as complex, imperative and scrutinized as this has been and will continue to be.

Communicate Proactively

Every company that has a role to play in providing a product needs to convey the steps they are taking to mitigate the impact of the shortage, regardless of the extent to which they are directly to blame for the shortage. Given the stress caused by the shortage, companies should communicate with empathy about the steps they are taking and consider reaching consumers across multiple channels beyond corporate media statements. Companies should consider leveraging their vast resources – the way Nestle facilitated an airlift of Gerber formula from Switzerland to the U.S. – to support consumers during a public crisis.

Avoid Tone Deaf Marketing and Promotional Activity

Companies associated with the shortage should pause related marketing activity during the height of the crisis to avoid appearing tone deaf. Baby formula manufacturers have been heavily criticized for continuing certain marketing campaigns, such as sending product samples to expecting mothers during the crisis with national journalists calling out such practices on social media. Companies should take appropriate steps with content across owned, paid and social channels to ensure they do not create the perception that brands are not 100% focused on solving the shortage crisis. Companies should also consider whether there is a need to pause activity on other brands that are unrelated to the shortage, as external stakeholders become more aware during the crisis of brands within its portfolio.

Invest in Reputational Brand-building

After the crisis has eased, investment in long-term reputational corporate brand building will be vital – both externally and with team members. Given the emotive nature of product shortages and their real impact upon people’s lives, it will take hard work for brands to rebuild the trust they previously had with consumers, lawmakers and regulators. In the case of the baby formula industry, a spotlight has been placed on the companies behind the brands and the structure of the industry, leading to allegations that the industry is too concentrated. Companies should consider how they can convey the value they provide on an ongoing basis to the most vulnerable consumers and communities that rely on their product while also demonstrating the steps they’ve taken since the crisis – such as investments in new capacity – to build confidence that their supply chain will be better equipped to manage future challenges.

Keep Team Members Front of Mind

From an internal perspective, companies should also work to engage effectively with frontline team members who are producing essential products. There is the potential for increased employee activism due to lingering morale challenges associated with the shortages and negative external attention hanging over the workforce. Any investments being made in team members should also be communicated externally in order to highlight the critical importance placed upon frontline team members by the company and as another way in which to show that the company is mitigating against the risk of any labor shortages in a challenging economic climate.

It is likely that many industries will continue to face global supply chain challenges, alongside continued economic volatility, in the second half of 2022. Communications teams across the food industry landscape should take time to consider the communications lessons from this crisis and assess how they would manage a scenario in which the availability of an essential product they provide is limited. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss more on how to navigate communications considerations related to product shortages.

Jimmy Szczepanek is a communications nerd, amateur baker and flexitarian who leads Ketchum’s Food, Beverage and Cultivate industry group. He lives in Los Angeles where he enjoys the California lifestyle and exploring the diverse food scene. He has a rich history in consumer and food marketing and leads a dynamic team who find out-of-the-box solutions to communications challenges.

Jordan is a vice president, account director in Ketchum’s corporate reputation specialty, based in Washington, D.C., with extensive experience working with clients across food and agriculture, technology and financial services. He also has considerable international experience supporting clients on global campaigns, having previously spent four years in Ketchum’s London office.