Why Brand Still Matters
in a Covid World
A Year of Radical Change
In the midst of 2020, it was clear things were shifting rapidly and typical habits around food & beverage were changing.

But the extent of change - and its permanence - was unclear, prompting the need to understand more about change in the food & beverage landscape during the pandemic and beyond.
Google partnered with Material to understand not only which behaviors were changing, but which have the emotional and rational markers to become more permanent vs. those that are only of the moment.
We explored 15 behaviors across 11 food and beverage categories, including making food at home, eating new-or indulgent-or healthier foods, ordering both groceries and takeout for pickup or delivery, and others.
To determine whether a behavioral change had the markers of permanence, we looked at several factors:
  • Did the behavior exist before the pandemic?
  • Was it meaningful enough such that when things get back to normal it will be reinstated?
  • How frequent and rigid is the new behavior now?
  • How much does that behavior rely on context?
  • Does the new behavior offer benefits that will extend beyond a point in time (i.e., beyond the pandemic)?
Habits are formed through a combination of cues and reinforcers.

Cues—an event or signal just before the behavior— trigger a behavior without much conscious effort. For example, online grocery apps have made it easy and intuitive to go from “I want to eat some cookies” to placing an order without even getting up from our chair.

Reinforcers are the positive feelings one has after hitting “Complete Purchase,” i.e., knowing your cookies are on their way.

By measuring the strength of both cues and reinforcers, we can understand which behaviors are ripe for permanent change vs. not.
To learn more about how habits are formed, download The Behavioral Science of Habit Formation.
of people made a change in their food or beverage behaviors, including how they shopped for groceries, what they bought, and what role restaurants played in their lives.
Overall, we learned that the scope of change
(whether permanent or not) was massive for food and beverage.

And while many have the markers of being more temporary (such as eating more indulgently), there are some habits that have the markers of permanence even after the pandemic is over:
Cooking more
at home
Eating healthier
and more mindfully
Getting restaurant delivery
Ordering groceries for delivery or pickup
As consumers’ behaviors changed, so did their relationships to brands.

Vacillating between fear and optimism, we found that consumers looked to both familiar and new brands for comfort, to make their pandemic lives more convenient, and to help them explore.
  • Serving as a heuristic for familiarity, brands played an enormous role in helping consumers feel secure and comforted, with 68% continuing to buy the food brands, and 73% ordering from the restaurants, with which they were familiar before the pandemic.
  • This was welcome news for many well-known food and beverage companies, as consumers ran to candy (Hershey Kisses, M&Ms, Reese’s), cookies (Oreos), chips (Lays, Doritos), crackers (Ritz), pizza (Domino’s, Papa John’s), and more for comfort.
  • However, there is risk for brands that lean too heavily into security & comfort. The tie to security must evolve to a more sustainable version of support and relief that goes beyond the moment.
  • Overnight our world became not just scarier, but much more challenging. So while many brands sought to provide comfort, others stepped in to simply make life a little easier.
  • For online grocery delivery and pickup, while the initial reason for trial may have been driven by fear (with 70% motivated by security), as the pandemic has worn on, the behavior has become more habitual, with 52% motivated to shop online for the convenience it offers.
  • Convenience was also the top motivation for selecting a restaurant—both for restaurants they ordered from before the pandemic (58%) and during (57%).
  • Unlike comfort, the need for ease and convenience is perennial. Brands that show up well here become partners with their consumers in navigating difficult circumstances.
  • But showing up well in convenience may inhibit discovery because convenience often short-cuts exploration.
  • During the pandemic, brands played a central role in Exploration, as consumers discovered (and in some cases, re-discovered) brands that helped them become better versions of themselves in what might have otherwise been a stagnant time of personal development.
  • The desire to “mix things up” inspired 42% to try a new food brand and 44% to try a new restaurant. This was especially true if they were looking to eat healthier (43%), change up their cooking routine through new foods (33%), try a new recipe (33%), order out (23%), or be more sustainable (20%).
  • Brands that successfully habitualize these exploratory experiences are positioning themselves well for the future, becoming the kind of high fidelity brands that consumers come to rely on as expressions of their best selves.
  • In times of crisis, our inherent nature is to look for things that fulfill our basic human need for security.
  • In the pandemic, 91% of those who made a change in what they ate/drank or how they got their food did so to feel safer and more secure. We sought familiarity and comfort in what we ate, and we wanted to feel safe when getting our food.
  • Online, we found that conversations around comfort food increased 20% YOY, while “indulge” messages were up 10%.
“This quarantine is killing me. I had all these systems in place to keep me eating healthy at the office, and they all went out the window when we started WFH. I love snacking... And I keep finding excuses to bake... And we keep buying all the crap we used to eat in college...”
“I've been making chocolate chip cookies every weekend, eating them over the course of the week, and hitting the oven again on Saturday…stuff like this makes me feel so much better.”
  • Whether it’s about getting food or making it, convenience has been key to easing anxieties during the pandemic.
  • In combination with rising needs around comfort and safety, convenience contributed to 1000% growth globally in searches for "delivery restaurants near me" in November 2020. [1]
  • These shifting needs also contributed to a 20,000% global growth YoY in searches for "takeout restaurants” in December 2020 (open takeout restaurants near me, takeout restaurants open on Christmas, takeout restaurants near me open now). [2]
  • Online, we saw that conversations around convenience and food increased 27% YOY.
“I’m getting tired of planning meals and want something convenient.”
“We always leaned into convenience as best as possible during the week. Now, everything is cancelled and we’re stuck at home but none of us can bring ourselves to cooking now. So, we’re still leaning into convenience.”
  • The role of discovery is equally important to comfort and convenience.
  • Online, conversations around “mixing things up” with food increased 15% YOY.
  • As people increasingly found themselves making food at home, they leaned into exploration to discover new recipes. Though, this exploration was also centered around the need for safety, convenience, and a change in routine.
  • People were looking for simple recipes (38%) and convenient ingredients (31%).
  • As evidenced in June of 2020, searches for "recipe videos" grew globally by over 2,000% YoY (top searches: “30 second recipe videos”). [3]
  • Some QSR brands have embraced the situation by positioning their offering within the context of what people need most, becoming much more than simply a “quick service” option.
“Ordering food outside the home has given consumers a meaningful excuse to venture out during the pandemic (or drive that special occasion of ordering delivery), but the destination and food have needed to make that special trip worthwhile. Leaving the home during the pandemic has become an adventure, leading consumers to seek out unique flavors and experiences. QSR specifically has been driving the innovation and convenience space, not only making restaurants more accessible, but providing consumers options that they wouldn’t necessarily make at home at a good price. This trifecta has made QSR uniquely resilient relative to other restaurant categories.” --Kristy Salway, Director, Consumer Brands & Insights at Subway
Direct Connection
As brands have stepped in, consumers are reciprocating, seeking a more direct, closer connection to the brands they love, reinforcing feelings of comfort, convenience, and discovery.
After the start of the Global Pandemic, 22% turned to DTC websites/apps for food, either to find the comfort food they couldn’t find on grocery store shelves or to discover new products from the brands they love.
They were also more interested in ordering direct from restaurants (78%) and grocers (89%) vs. 3rd-party apps (60% and 75% respectively).
61% (71% of Millennials) recognized that restaurant loyalty programs made it easy to get comforting, familiar food.
Brands that successfully facilitate this kind of direct connection have the potential to thrive outside the moment, especially if the experiences are personalized and inspiring. Consumers want these types of experiences if the brand easily elevates their way of being. And they will reward those brands with loyalty.
Home As the Hub: Digital-Forward Strategy
The key to connecting with consumers at this level is a digital-forward strategy, as most brand connections are made from home, where digital has become the hub of knowledge and discovery.
51% used online sources more during the pandemic to find information about food in general as well as restaurants - a habit that has all the markers (emotional and functional) of becoming a more permanent change. The younger you are, the more likely this was to be true, with 63% of GenZ and 61% of Millennials who used online sources more during the pandemic than before.
Online reviews and recommendations were central to discovery, with 47% who discovered new brands this way.
Search was also critical, with 70% using search the same amount or more to find food & beverage information during the pandemic. Their reasons to search spanned their motivations, from Comfort through “contactless delivery” (up 4,000% YOY in June, 2020) [4] to Convenience like “delivery restaurants near me” (up 1,000% YOY in November 2020) [5] and “closest grocery store” (up 500% YOY August 2020) to Exploration like “recipe videos” (up 2,000% YOY in June 2020) [6].
These digital-first habits have all the markers of becoming permanent. A personalized, inspiring, brand-centered digital plan is critical to ensuring a place now and beyond this moment.
Moving From ‘The Now’ to ‘The Next’
Brands that successfully navigated all this are well positioned to outlast the moment, especially if they made it easy to reinforce new habits in an emotionally positive and inspiring way. As brands consider what is next, they ought to reground themselves in the motivations that matter, pandemic or not, while committing to a practice of staying one step ahead of, not only how, but also where brand experiences are having their biggest impact.
The “new normal” isn’t just the old normal with a mask on. Consumers have changed, and habit formation research can help you translate these changes into business opportunities. Learn how by downloading our ebook, Why Habit Formation Should Guide Your Brand Strategy.

If you’re ready to talk about how your consumers’ habits have changed, contact us.
[ 1 ] Google Data, Global English, Sep 29, 2020 - Nov 27, 2020 vs Oct 1, 2019 - Nov 29, 2019
[ 2 ] Google Data, Global English, Nov 3, 2020 - Jan 1, 2021 vs Nov 3, 2019 - Jan 1, 2020
[ 3 ] Google Data, Global English, Apr 15, 2020 - Jun 13, 2020 vs Apr 15, 2019 - Jun 13, 2019
[ 4 ] Google Internal Data,  March 15, 2020 - June 27, 2020 vs March 15, 2019 - June 27th, 2019
[ 5 ] Google Data, Global English, Sep 29, 2020 - Nov 27, 2020 vs Oct 1, 2019 - Nov 29, 2019
[ 6 ] Google Data, Global English, Apr 15, 2020 - Jun 13, 2020 vs Apr 15, 2019 - Jun 13, 2019