COVID-19 Poses Marketing Challenges, Risks for Brands

Need an immunity boost?

While the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise worldwide, the food and beverage industry has been forced to swiftly adjust to the crisis. Just as consumers have changed their shopping habits by racing to grocery stores to stock up before indefinite periods of self-quarantine, many brands and entrepreneurs have fast begun tailoring their messaging to comment on the virus. Others are seizing the moment to promote products with immunity boosting properties through social media posts, press releases and eblasts.

While many of these promotions simply highlight the benefits of Vitamin C, turmeric, and other ingredients said to help the immune system, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been proactive in making sure no company steps over the line into making false claims that immunity boosting products can help prevent or treat coronavirus, or any other disease.

In an FAQ released Tuesday, the FDA said it is “actively monitoring for any firms marketing products with fraudulent COVID-19 prevention and treatment claims.” Violators, the agency said, will receive warning letters and could face penalties including product seizures and injunctions.

An FTC spokesperson noted the importance of stopping bad actors quickly in order to help consumers understand that no products have been proven to prevent or cure COVID-19.

“If you make a claim that a product can treat or cure anything it needs to be true, not misleading or deceptive and supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence,” the spokesperson said. “If not, don’t make the claim.”

Earlier this month, the FDA and FTC sent out warning letters to seven supplement and oil companies for making false claims about products treating coronavirus. In an email, an FDA spokesperson said the agency is working closely with major retailers and is monitoring online marketplaces and to date has received 90 reports of products marketed with unapproved claims of aiding with COVID-19 and has found at least 50 products in online marketplaces with unproven claims.

Many companies have found ways to call out COVID-19 in their messaging without making false claims. Chlorophyll Water has called out the pandemic in eblasts and offered discounts for online orders during this current period of social distancing, advising consumers to “remain safe and healthy” without claiming their product will prevent a disease. Others, such as frozen vegetable brand Strong Roots USA, have mentioned the coronavirus in social media posts advising consumers on how to preserve food at home.

According to Justin Prochnow, a shareholder of law firm GreenbergTraurig, the law regarding food and beverage companies making claims to treat medical issues is fairly cut and dry: brands cannot say their product treats an illness, they cannot say a specific ingredient contained in their product treats an illness, and they cannot distribute messaging about an illness that dovetails into a pitch for their product.

“You can’t spend the first half of the copy talking about how coronavirus attacks the immune system and then talk about your product for immune support, because the dots get connected,” Prochnow said. “If you say ‘all these bad things happen when you have a weakened immune system and now here’s our product that will help you protect and support your immune system,’ you’re essentially saying your product will help prevent those issues that happen when you have a compromised immune system.”

Jennifer M. Adams, associate at law firm Amin Talati Wasserman, also warned that naming the coronavirus at all in messaging could put companies in murky waters. As well, she advised CEOs to take caution when discussing the virus on their personal social media accounts — though they may afford themselves some distance from their companies by speaking as individuals, they could still be considered brand representatives and face legal repercussions.

“When both are mentioned together, even with just vague references and not expressly mentioning COVID-19, there could potentially be an implied claim a product’s immune health benefits prevent COVID-19,” Adams said.

Marketing in the Time of Coronavirus

But it’s not just regulations brands have to be careful with when messaging around coronavirus — there’s also a matter of taste.

As concern over COVID-19 has grown in the past two weeks, wellness beverage brand LifeAID has seen sales of its ImmunityAID SKU increase up to 500% since March 1, resulting in back orders with distributors and Amazon and forcing the company to increase production to meet demand, co-founder and president Aaron Hinde said.

Hinde and co-founder and CEO Orion Melehan have both been active on LinkedIn in the past two weeks, discussing immunity and promoting the brand. However, LifeAID, Hinde said, has been cautious to both stay within the confines of the law and not seem opportunistic in its marketing push for ImmunityAID.

“This is a national crisis we’re in and the last thing we want to be seen doing is profiteering from people’s fears,” Hinde said. “We want to take a leadership role and be a solution for people. We don’t want to contribute to the fearmongering. I’ve seen other companies blatantly claiming that [their product] is gonna cure coronavirus and that’s just not accurate.”

Though LifeAID is promoting the brand by speaking out about immunity and techniques to stay healthy, such as exercise, Melehan said the company does see the surge in demand for ImmunityAID as a means to bring news consumers into the brand. The company has shifted much of its marketing spend towards digital and social media channels and Melehan hopes consumers who try and enjoy ImmunityAID will later try the brand’s other products.

Daina Trout, co-founder and CEO of Health-Ade Kombucha, said the brand has seen an increase in sales of its Ginger Lemon SKU due to the perceived health benefits of ginger but the company has been cautious of making claims or drawing connections to COVID-19. However, Trout said the brand is looking to “tastefully educate” consumers by promoting the proven health benefits of its products, including links to scientific research, without drawing explicit connections to the virus.

“We’re never posting anything that is unfounded and it’s all educational,” Trout said. “The general spirit of it is ‘keep yourself healthy right now.’ Not that there’s a pill you can take.”

Some food brands, however, have found ways to talk about the unique situation created by social distancing without making any health claims at all. Similar to Strong Roots USA’s approach of giving consumers advice on preserving food, organic vegetable brand Cece’s Veggie Co. said it is aiming to help consumers navigate the kitchen during the pandemic while being “super sensitive” about messaging.

Mason Arnold, Cece’s founder and CEO, said that despite having more recently focused on promoting its new ready-to-eat ramen offerings, the brand will transition its online marketing to cooking content, including a video series and blog posts explaining how and why to use the company’s convenient veggie products. For example, a post this week describes the nutritional benefits of vegetables with citations for the information — and no explicit medical claims.

Arnold noted the company’s goal is to promote more positive messaging rather than discussing COVID-19 itself, which he said should be left to experts rather than brands.

“From a brand perspective, a lot of people are saying a lot of things,” Arnold said. “We wanted to talk about eating healthy because it is more important now than ever with people being home.”