How to crack the ‘chicken and egg’ supply chain communications challenge

Rebecca Cheung, account director

Challenges to supply chains within the food and drink industry have been under the spotlight recently, with contributing factors including Covid-19, Brexit, inflationary pressures, and difficult labour market conditions; these issues aren’t going away any time soon.

Take the poultry supply nightmare and its impact on quick-service restaurants (QSR) as a case in point. The QSR sector has been hit with a chicken shortage not once but twice in the last 3 months, denting consumer confidence and brand reputation.

In the lead up to Christmas, with continued issues predicted for all sorts of produce, not least our turkey dinner, how certain QSR brands navigated these windows of crisis presents some key comms learnings for other businesses in the wider industry.

Within a broad network of QSR outlets that have been impacted, a brand that got it right was a Portuguese chicken restaurant chain for their proactive approach to a Covid ‘ping-demic’ supply issue which triggered the temporary closure of 50 of their UK outlets (11% of their UK business).

Firstly, closely aligned comms with their trade body suggests they collaborated to highlight and address the issue on a broader scale.

Richard Griffiths, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council, spoke out on the Today programme blaming Brexit, paperwork shackles and rules around immigration and workers for the supply hit across the industry and was also open about lobbying the Home Secretary for change.

In jointly pushing the issue,  the chicken brand and their trade body sought to address the issue not just for themselves, but for related sectors affected and to create longer-lasting change for the better.

Secondly, they were open with their customer base by offering updates on social media – mitigating customer disappointment or lack of knowledge on the issues.

Often brands can be shy to utilise their social channels as a means to communicate with their customers; after all, it’s common knowledge negative news around brands can spread like wildfire on platforms such as Twitter.

But actually to embrace those open lines of communications allows a brand a direct line to connect with and keep their consumers informed, gives them greater control of the messaging and avoids creating a vacuous space which others will inevitably fill with sometimes less favourable content.

Thirdly, and most interestingly, they deployed a clever business tactic which not only offered up practical help within their own supply chain, but also painted them as a trusted partner, happy to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to get the job done.

They ‘gifted’ restaurant staff to chicken factories, helping staff shortages in the supply chain but also, of course, speeding up the process of their own re-opening with better supply.

They really took control, owned the situation and examined how they could communicate and overcome the issue from a real 360° perspective. The move was a reputational win, garnering respect within the industry, amongst staff keen to get back to work, and from customers too.

It’s a tough balancing act for food and drink brands in problematic supply chain scenarios like this.

Competing operational pressures are at play, such as the need to maintain consumer confidence that menus and shelves will continue to be stocked and value for money offered, whilst also paying staff higher wages and improving working conditions without relying on overseas workers.

It’s tricky and really requires a brand to show up as a responsible corporate citizen, doing the right thing by all stakeholders in line with purported purpose and values.

So, for example, whether it’s leading the way and/or advocating for change in labour conditions in the industry or educating consumers on why current market conditions mean supply will be affected and/or that low prices are not sustainable and price increases must be passed on for the greater good, brands have a role to play in the wider ecosystem of information delivered to consumers about where their food and drink comes from.

While consumers may want low prices and stock availability, our latest authenticity research highlights they’re also equally as quick to vote with their feet and hard-earned cash when they come across businesses that are not demonstrating a commitment to sustainable business practices or ethical business policies.

So as we enter the festive season and the fear of expected delays and shortages loom, here are four things brands can take forward if faced with these dilemmas:

  1. Be brave and act. To not address the issue is to shy away from a problem and demonstrate you have something to hide or, worse, implies you don’t care – never good attributes as a brand.
  2. Communicate holistically. Review issues from all angles to ensure you’re not missing comms to an important stakeholder, whether that be through CRM channels, social media, media engagement or even internally with your own staff. Addressing all in the right way will spread confidence and trust. In fact, don’t be afraid to over-communicate to show up as a brand working hard on solutions to the supply predicament you find yourself in.
  3. Don’t be self-serving. Look wider than just giving solves to you as a brand. Think about the industry, the supply chain, your staff, the customer experience, and ways to benefit all of those as you navigate the issues. Can your operational risk become a reputational opportunity?
  4. Plan ahead. Scenario mapping for potential future issues (including those listed above) can be a prudent way of ensuring guardrails are in place for any pitfalls of Brexit, Covid-19 or otherwise to ensure as a brand you are best placed to react accordingly.

There is so much to be learned from these recent events and lots of smart and effective tactics that can be put into practice to ensure you come out on top from a comms perspective.

Please get in touch with FleishmanHillard’s EMEA food, beverage and agribusiness lead, Liam McCloy, to learn more about our work and our outlook on these important issues.