Ad Age Next: 5 hours in 1 video and 5 paragraphs.

On Tuesday, March 23, nearly 400 food and beverage marketing professionals attended the Ad Age Next: Food & Beverage webinar.

Industry leaders shared their perspectives on what they believe lies ahead for brands and food service as we emerge from the pandemic. Our own JoDee George and Corteva Agriscience’s Rajan Gajaria had a lively discussion around sustainability and its increasing relevance to consumers.


Two major takeaways:

  • Rajan spoke to how business and sustainability shouldn’t have separate strategies. “We do not think of sustainability as another activity; it is essentially woven into how we think of our business.”

  • JoDee emphasized “Sustainability is increasingly important to both consumers and shareholders. Research shows that products marketed as sustainable see sales grow 5.6 times faster than conventionally positioned products.”

5 overall themes we observed:

1. PIVOT: the word of the past year:

At least according to Technomic’s David Henkes, who went on to predict that pivoting would continue long after the pandemic ends. Everything from drive-through to delivery and takeout to apps grew so quickly that he predicted their influence will even affect restaurant experiences. As Buffalo Wild Wings CMO Rita Patel put it: “One of the biggest challenges was taking a step back and reimagining where to show up.”

Other interesting terms we picked up throughout the day:

  • Lean-in Food: Buffalo Wild Wings considers many of its menu items to be lean-in foods, requiring eaters to literally lean in over their plates.
  • Adaptogens: herbs, roots and plants that might help the body resist physical, chemical or biological stressors.
  • Point-of-Sweat: a Gatorade coinage when referencing its new Gx sweat patch, which monitors sodium output for optimum hydration.

Our personal nominee for most prevalent word would be authentic, particularly when applied to influencer culture.

2. New brand success depends on truly understanding your core audience:

Again and again, start-up founders and brand managers of new products discussed the importance of this for ensuring growth. Lana Buchanan, VP of Marketing Beyond Beer for Anheuser-Busch, credited the successful launch of CACTI, a collaboration with Travis Scott, to their co-creation approach; “He has such a clear vision of what his consumers want.” Christina Roperti, Director of Communications for the All-Clad cookware brand saw this firsthand with their influencer outreach last spring: “The influencer content really resonated because it was really relevant to people at the time.”

3. Independent restaurants face a tough road:

“Most of the business travelers are gone. You have to figure out a new way to network and navigate to get new customers when 2/3 of your business is gone,” said Marcus Samuelsson, who also noted that 41% of restaurants closed during the pandemic were Black-owned. He estimated that even with the vaccine, full recovery might take 5-10 years. Hard news for the 11 million people employed by independent restaurants in America. On the other hand, a few panelists remain bullish on restaurant dining rebounding strong, with Henkes citing July 4 as a huge inflection point thanks to widespread vaccination.

4. Forward-thinking F&B sectors thrived:

Beyond the obvious winner of food delivery, start-up direct-to-consumer CPG brands thrived despite the challenges as food e-commerce exploded. “COVID was like jet fuel for us,” said William Schumacher, Uprising Food CEO. Food influencers also benefited from the sudden focus on cooking at home. “Our traffic tripled that first month of March and then grew four times the month of April,” explained Gaby Dalkin of “What’s Gaby Cooking?” The consensus seems to be that e-commerce and social commerce will remain strong post-pandemic though one challenge persists: new brand discovery. Search on retailer sites provides no equivalent to walking down aisles, scanning shelves and endcaps. Brands should take the opportunity to co-develop better search experiences with online retailers.

5. The future prioritizes sustainability:

Most panelists provided insights about what the future might hold. Many agreed that we face some uncharted waters, and that adaptability will prevail. However, the themes of sustainability and environmental stewardship, which led many urgent conversations before the pandemic, emerged as panelists looked forward. Jasmine Dadlani, chief strategy officer at McKinney, added that sustainable eating is becoming a strong consumer trend that is becoming part of upfront marketing. Corteva’s Rajan Gajaria acknowledged that business and sustainability strategies should not have separate strategies, and that good leadership will listen to a brand promise that balances both.