NEW YORK — Consumers largely have gravitated toward comfort foods and more traditional products during the pandemic. They also are becoming more intentional with their online shopping, creating opportunities for brands offering fresh takes on familiar favorites. 

That dynamic has played out at Banza, a maker of chickpea-based pasta and frozen pizzas. More than 20% of its customers currently discover the brand online.

“We tend to do better when people are really intentional about their eating and their process of discovery,” said John Petsagourakis, growth director at Banza, during a Nov. 13 panel discussion hosted by Chicory, a digital shopper marketing platform. “With more time and more focus on grocery, people are turning to e-commerce for both inspiration and education. We’re resonating more because we're fitting into their exploration.”

Pasture-raised organic egg brand Handsome Brook Farms has used e-commerce as an educational tool. The company in April debuted a new carton design as part of a larger rebranding effort.

“Those additional e-commerce outlets were critical in showing consumers these new packages and putting the brand in context,” said Matt Sherman, chief marketing officer at Handsome Brook Farms. “It wasn’t like they were going to the store and slowly watching the older inventory sell out and the new inventory come in, and we couldn’t get into the store to say ‘Same great eggs, new look.’”

With a focus on sustainability and humane sourcing, the new messaging resonated with consumers who discovered the brand online, he added.

“This has been a great opportunity because people are really focused on what’s in their refrigerator and what they’re feeding their families,” Mr. Sherman said. “They get to thinking about whether or not those items are aligned with their broader values.”

Impossible Foods, Inc. has had to balance the need to reach more consumers with the negative environmental impacts that come with shipping frozen and refrigerated products. The company confronted the challenge when scaling up its direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform, which launched in June.

“Direct-to-consumer is an interesting channel because you get so much data when you talk directly to consumers, and few brands have the chance to do that,” said Erin Dress, director of retail marketing at Impossible Foods. “You also have to balance your choices with the negative impacts that consumers often see… So we’re still figuring out how big we want to scale DTC.”

Impossible Foods has explored other online channels, like meal kits and curated subscription boxes, to expand its reach during the pandemic. The company also has grown its presence in traditional brick-and-mortar stores, adding around 3,000 doors in 2020.

“We want to reach consumers wherever they are and whatever is convenient for them,” Ms. Dress said. “It’s about the total ecosystem.”

While brands have leveraged e-commerce to generate discovery and educate consumers, new challenges could emerge as online shopping becomes more routine.

“We’ve seen people’s openness to making new choices and new positions as they transition onto platforms, but that has the potential to become more automated,” Mr. Petsagourakis said.

Banza has seen a doubling in Instacart sales coming from people adding items they have ordered before.  

“It’s about creating that first touchpoint with someone as they’re developing this new behavior,” Mr. Petsagourakis said. “When we get into that first cart, customers tend to spend more over time. It’s important to talk to them in that initial stage because that might not continue.”

An omnichannel approach will be key as consumer behavior continues evolving during and after the pandemic, said Paul Baker, co-founder of St Pierre Groupe, a United Kingdom-based baked foods company.

“We all agree e-commerce is the future, but it’s an evolution, and that evolution is going to take time,” he said.

The biggest risk will be consumer lethargy online after the pandemic ends, he predicted.

“There might be a reaction where people say, ‘We spent enough time online, we need to reconnect with people,’” Mr. Baker said. “The good news is this is giving companies and consumers time to adapt, and in between there are opportunities to excite existing consumers and bring in new consumers in a new way. It’s actually quite exciting for brands during what is a really challenging time.”