A Little Help From Your Friends

A number of retailers have set up programs in which they assist their customers in supporting healthcare workers, their neighbors, or their broader communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These initiatives are primarily charitable, but they bring marketing and sometimes sales benefits as well:

• Walmart teamed with NextDoor, a social networking app for neighborhoods, for a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” Program. The collaboration, formed at the end of April, is meant to make it easier for neighbors to assist each other during the lockdown. It creates a platform to match consumers who need help securing essentials such as groceries and pharmacy items with neighbors who are willing to pick up and deliver the things they need. Members of the free Nextdoor app click on the Groups tab to find Walmart stores in their area pinned to the page, along with a prompt to post a message if they need help or want to provide it. Members can then connect and coordinate logistics and payment. Prior to this deal, Nextdoor had seen a sevenfold increase in people joining groups formed to help their neighbors during the crisis.

• Joann, the craft and fabric retailer, has encouraged its sewing-savvy customers to make face masks for healthcare professionals, and has given away free kits containing all the materials they need, with instructions and how-to videos available on its website. The retailer’s store managers have worked with local hospitals to assess their current requirements, collect the finished products, and arrange the deliveries. As of the end of March, the chain had gathered more than 11 million masks. The effort not only fills a need for medical first responders but keeps consumers busy and fulfilled as they self-isolate.

• Lowe’s created a campaign to spur consumers to build yard signs to thank healthcare professionals for their essential work. The company asked them to use materials they have around the house, such as holiday lights or craft and DIY supplies to create the signs and display their creations in a prominent location. On April 6, participants shared pictures of their work on social media with the hashtag #buildthanks. Lowe’s offered instructions and examples for inspiration on a dedicated page on its website. Like the Joann program, the #buildthanks campaign also gives consumers a project to keep them occupied while offering support to those on the front lines, even as it reinforces the retailer’s position as a go-to source for craft and DIY products.

• JCPenney, prior to its Chapter 11 bankruptcy declaration, created an initiative in partnership with Give Back Box that allowed customers to donate used items and feel confident that they went to charities supporting education and job training for furloughed and unemployed Americans. Customers could fill a box with good-condition used clothing and household items, print a free shipping label from the JCPenney website, and drop the box at a UPS or USPS location. The boxes were recycled and the goods donated to local charities. The initiative was themed to Earth Day, but its timing this year meant the need for such a program was as great as it ever has been, for humanitarian as well as environmental reasons.

• Supermarket operator Southeastern Grocers, whose chains include Bi-Lo, Winn-Dixie, Harveys, and Fresco y Más, paired with Feeding America on a program where shoppers can give “hunger relief” bags of groceries, for $5.00, to people facing food insecurity because of the ramifications of COVID-19. The bags, filled with SE Grocers-branded private-label non-perishables, are available for purchase at store registers across all of the chains, fulfilled at company warehouses, and donated to food banks in the southeastern U.S.

Retailers have often spearheaded charitable initiatives in the past, sometimes involving their customers’ participation. What is interesting about these examples is that they offer an opportunity for a retailer to raise awareness and buff its image in a pandemic-acceptable way, because they are filling a real need for consumers who want to help. This was a particular benefit during the first month or more of the crisis, when many marketers were shying away from advertising, promotions, and other exposure-generating activities altogether in fear of seeming insensitive or inappropriate. (Marketing efforts have slowly been coming back in the last few weeks, although nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.) Several of these initiatives also bring traffic to the stores and/or spur purchasing, either directly or indirectly.

A reminder: Raugust Communications’ free e-newsletter for this month (sign up here) comes out tomorrow, May 19. The Licensing Topic of the Month takes a look at the apparel category, one of the most challenged sectors during the coronavirus era, and how licensing may play a role in its comeback. The Datapoint research spotlight highlights the messaging marketers of licensed properties and products are using to maintain awareness during the pandemic, and how these tactics are changing as the crisis goes on. Check out the archives of the Topic of the Month here and of the Datapoint feature here.

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