Beyond 'Hands And Pans': McCormick Videos Help Solve Lockdown Loneliness

The COVID-19 pandemic keeps reminding marketers that data will only take you so far. It is great for revealingwhat people are doing, but not necessarily why.

When one of McCormick’s own food stylists turned the Instagram camera on herself and her own kitchen, a surprise hit was born.During unprecedented lockdowns, having a friendly face from McCormick’s own team make do with what was at hand in her own kitchen counted for a lot. No, really, a lot. T

he 130-year-old maker of brands like McCormick spices, French’s, Frank’s RedHot, Old Bay and Zatarain’s has run with that simple insight to spawn many new video series that are driving massive levels of engagement -- and sales. As CMO Jill Pratt tells Brand Insider this week, the pandemic is helping brands better identify with their own customers, and vice versa. 

MediaPost: McCormick has had an unexpected Instagram Stories hit during the Pandemic lockdowns. Can you explain how your team happened upon this idea? 

Pratt: "Cook with Us" started out with Rachel, who is one of our chefs, realizing that consumers were looking for a more human connection. So how do we use a face on camera to show some quick and easy recipes that people could do at home?

And that was really more of a test and learn — her being at home and turning on the camera on her own grill and kitchen. And now we've created more than 50 Instagram Stories using five internal McCormick hosts. We've got 4.2 million impressions and counting across these recipes, so it's turned out to be a quite a big series for us.

MP: You were also using a lot of your digital data to drive the content. 

Pratt: When we started out this particular time period where people all of a sudden had stay-at-home orders and the pandemic was coming, we had all these insights. But how are people feeling today? And the easiest thing to do is look at search results, which we did, but I think what you see in the search results doesn't always have the emotion behind it. 

Posted by McCormick Spice on Thursday, April 16, 2020

We have a consumer panel that we started about five years ago that has 400 cooking and flavor enthusiasts. We used to tap into them about once a month with questions about advertising innovation.

Then we started reaching out to them weekly. People were at home more, they had more time, and the engagement we got from that panel was unbelievable. It encouraged us to approach things differently.

So when we would do cooking videos before, we would use external talent. If we would we use internal talent, it was like a hands-and-pans, very instructional video. 

Through our consumer panel, we saw how lonely [people] were. They were missing friends and colleagues. Just having that extra connection of a face on camera made the videos so much more relevant to them and made them feel like they were part of these folks' homes, having shared experiences that they weren't maybe necessarily looking for before.

MP: Prior to this, you were using videos with social influencers, but basically a lot of food images on Instagram. How has this transformed your Instagram presence generally?

Pratt: We certainly saw a search rise. Social media prior to the pandemic used to be about 7 minutes a day, and now it's up to 82 minutes. People are seeking this content so much more. Our benchmarks and engagement went up, and visits went up from about 28% to 224% during this period, depending on the content. 

Some of our most successful ones were things like Tater Tot Casserole or Buffalo Chicken Pizza, which were getting hundreds of thousands of impressions, which is 50% to 68% above our average Story. 

MP: As you started doing this over the first weeks, did you pivot as you got signals from different inputs about what people really wanted?

One of the things that interested me about this project how this more human touch was being shaped by data inputs like search and site behaviors. How were you making creative use of data to inform what people really wanted to see from this very human product?

Pratt: One of the things that we were expecting to see — because this was a health scare — was a move toward healthy recipes. But that wasn't what people were searching for. In the beginning, they were looking for indulgence.

When we dug a little deeper with our panels, other things came out around substitutions. "I don't have this" or "I can't find bread in the store, I don't have yeast."

We created several bake-bread-at-home-without-yeast videos. We reached out on our social channels as well as our website and said, "Ask us any questions you have and our kitchen staff will get back to you within 24 hours."

We got 400 questions in the first few weeks. We got questions like, "What does tablespoon mean in a recipe?" That's obviously a very new cook. "I can't find chicken breasts. I've got chicken thighs. How do I cook this differently?" We got a lot of data from the Ask McCormick recipes. Specific questions inspired some of the content.

One of our most successful videos came from "how to make jambalaya at home with leftovers.” Food waste became a big deal. People didn't want to go to the grocery store that often, so they were cooking with what they had in their panty and didn't want to throw out leftovers. 

MP: Are you seeing your consumers in a different light as a result of this? Building a different relationship with them? 

Pratt: It's absolutely true. Whenever you look at large quantitative data, you miss some of the deep consumer feelings and behavior that's underneath those numbers. 

Prior to the pandemic, you might have got some of these insights by going into their homes because what people say and the way they behave in their environments can be very different.

We do live [virtual] events where they can type questions while they're watching, which gives you rich insight into the way they're feeling. It's enabled us to get much closer to our consumers. The pandemic ... is a unique opportunity to open your ears and your eyes and develop that sense of empathy, because it never has been easier [to do so].

MP: You're doing other video projects across multiple platforms. Had they always existed, or are you starting to move into things like Facebook Live as a result of this project?

Pratt: The thing about a changing environment like this is, it gives you a kick in the butt to get moving. We started doing Facebook Live videos, 20- to 30-minute episodes, more of a deep dive of personalities instead of being more focused on the recipe.

Our most popular Facebook Live has been one that we did with Tabitha Brown, a pretty hot influencer on TikTok. She's vegan and extremely engaging. She created Garlic-Lovers Mushroom Pasta, which is really fun.

We have become less stringent about what our videos look like. Our content is more "in the moment," whatever happens organically is great.

We take brands that we have and if we find a connection to a cultural moment, we create an idea that is more about earned media. One of our biggest was [French's Yellow] Mustard Ice Cream, which came out last year.

But during this time period, we teamed up with Drew Barrymore. Drew was really interested in working with us on this. She's a big taco fan. She grew up in California and talks about it being a regular part of her diet. She also, like McCormick, donates to food security charities for kids. We went inside her home and had a virtual Taco Tuesday event and also donated $1 million to No Kid Hungry as part of that, which was huge for us. It had huge engagement, about 770 million impressions overall. 

MP: Let's tie this back to data and what kinds of KPIs you're using for these projects. Does video put you in a different realm in terms of how you're measuring success and what your goals are? 

Pratt: We've got a lot of history in our brands, so we're able to forecast within some reasonableness the impact of what we think different activities will have.

McCormick Cooking From Home is very favorable for McCormick overall. We've had weeks where our consumption has been up as high as 70% across our brands and 80% in our branded spice business. Even the last 13 weeks we're up about 45%.

What we've been excited about is that after the stocking-up, those numbers have continued to be high on a sustained level. We think that's because people are developing new habits of cooking at home. 

We are exceeding all of our impression goals and all of our consumption goals. Where we look to talk about whether things are successful is whether we're driving traffic to our owned and social properties.

On, organic search traffic was up over 200%. We're getting traffic coming in from social to our website that was up 92%, and people were spending 38% more time on the pages. People were coming to our website to look for recipes. They were then browsing for additional recipes -- and that, to us, is one of the biggest indicators that what we're doing is successful, because that's where people are getting those recipes to then cook at home.

MP: So as you come into 2021 and you look at your marketing mix and your allocation mix, how does this inform the way you plan for the longer term?

Pratt: We spend a lot more in digital than we do in traditional, and we expect that trend to continue. But one of the bigger changes that we're making is investing more in our owned and social properties.

One of the best things is making sure that if we have a lot of organic traffic coming into our owned properties, that's free. That's not people you have to pay for time and time again to reach out to you.

So developing that really rich experience to be a resource for consumers when they're looking for solutions to problems or inspiration, or whatever they're looking for, is really important to us, and we are doubling down on those efforts right now to ensure we're creating that relationship and we become that favorite place for consumers to go.

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