The COVID-19 pandemic has been terrible for millions of Americans and from an economic standpoint, one of the hardest hit sectors was foodservice. In many places, restaurants were forced to close dining rooms. Even if they weren’t, customers stayed away out of concern over the virus. As many as 20% of restaurants that were in business in January 2020 no longer are.
We saw a major shift in rice demand from the foodservice sector to the retail sector. You may recall empty grocery store shelves and limits on the number of staples one could purchase — items like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and rice and beans.
How to keep retail sales going
USA Rice was asked to explore ways to sustain the sales increase, so the Domestic Promotion Committee created a task force made up of millers and farmers representing all six rice-producing states. They developed a plan of paid media and retail partnerships that would connect with consumers to encourage them to buy more U.S.-grown rice and to feel good about the rice they already purchased.
They identified seven U.S. markets where rice sales were not typically strong but had increased during the pandemic, had a good-sized population, were affordable from a media perspective and where there were a few dominant retailers we could partner with. The committee received the financial support of the USA Rice Council and Rice Millers’ Association, and we were “off to the races.”
No need to reinvent the wheel
We didn’t need to recreate the wheel as our messaging was rooted in USA Rice consumer research from 2016 and 2017 that spawned the successful “Start with Rice” Certified Louisiana campaign. This program has been running since 2018, thanks to the Louisiana Rice Promotion Board and a grant from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Between mid-November 2020 and early January, consumers in our target markets had the opportunity to see one of 42 Start with Rice billboards. They also were able to hear 16 unique commercials that offered rice tips and ideas on local radio and streaming audio services like Pandora, Spotify and iHeart Radio. All told, almost 59 million Americans saw or heard our advertisements.
More than 9.4 million consumers in the markets were also encouraged to Start with Rice through our partnerships with grocery chains Kroger, Meijer and Woodman’s. Activities included newsletters, digital ads, emails, and in-store signage and interactive kiosks.
Consumers paid attention
And the results were impressive. On consumer attitudes, people who had seen our ads were far more likely to identify positive attributes of rice that were included in our messaging. Among those were “rice is quick, delicious, versatile and families enjoy it.”
Importantly, more than half the people who saw or heard the ads remembered they were sponsored by “America’s Rice Farmers.”
We also grew by 33% the number of consumers who said they planned to purchase rice six to nine times in the coming month. Rice sales themselves were also affected by the campaign with sales in the target markets remaining above 2019 baseline levels.
One final metric was the number of people who saw or heard an ad and then went to our website, StartWithRice.com. Between November 2020 and April, our nationwide web traffic was actually down 15%. But in our target markets, traffic was up an average of 1,291%!
We set out to positively impact consumers, and I think you have to agree we did. We boosted consumers’ rice IQ; now more of them know you’re out there growing their rice and they have better ideas how to prepare it. Our new relationship with major retailers isn’t bad, either. You can count on us to continue to promote the great story and reputation of U.S.-grown rice to American consumers.