At this point, it’s fair to say COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on life as we know it in the UK. Entire companies have pivoted to remote working, industries have drawn to a halt overnight and there is a long overdue, growing appreciation for the NHS, supermarket staff and many others keeping the world turning. With so much change in a short space of time, brands have reacted in myriad different ways – and some will emerge better than others.
Life before Coronavirus
Even prior to the crisis, consumer behaviour was increasingly shifting to support brands who went above and beyond simply being a business. Those who made active efforts to support their customers and demonstrate shared values enjoy strong relationships with their audience – whether it’s a focus on eco-friendliness, transparency, or social responsibility. You need only look at the popularity of TOMS shoes, or even Monzo banking.
COVID-19 has only enhanced this desire. These times of volatility have brought business activity into sharp focus and, while it may not be a priority to some, many are looking to brands to put their money where their mouth is and prove that they really do care after all.
The businesses to learn from
Virgin Atlantic was among the first to draw heavy public criticism, where flights were grounded. News circulated fast that employees had been ‘asked’ to take 8 weeks of unpaid leave within three months to reduce costs on the airline. Virgin Atlantic’s CEO is quoted as saying ‘We know that our people are our secret sauce’ – but their failure to protect them in turbulent times is damning. Meanwhile, customers have been struggling to obtain refunds from the airline amid cancellations.
On being instructed by government to close its doors, pub chain Wetherspoons’ response was to not pay their employees until the details of the furlough scheme were finalised, leaving staff with no pay for a month. Chairman Tim Martin told employees to consider finding a job at Tesco supermarkets via a video message.
Sports Direct also made headlines when they still opened their doors after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced total lockdown – meaning only essential stores should be open. This sparked criticism from not only the general public, but inside government too, with calls to immediately close and stop endangering staff.
As employees suddenly find themselves financially unstable and companies are put under the microscope, customers have wasted no time highlighting the unsympathetic responses. Many such businesses have now found themselves at the centre of social media backlash, appearing on lists of brands to boycott even after the pandemic is over.
The brands to emulate
It is, thankfully, not all doom and gloom, with many brands stepping up. Prior to lockdown, Pret a Manger lead the charge by being among the first to offer NHS workers free coffee to thank them for their hard work.
Here in Dorset, Conker Gin acted quickly to produce hand sanitiser using waste from gin production. They made it clear they are making no profit from the product and are giving them to frontline workers. Other industries pivoting to lend a hand include fashion houses now making masks, and UK-based Formula 1 rivals working together to rapidly produce ventilators and breathing aids.
After initial waves of panic buying and pressure from the public, UK supermarkets have reserved the first hour of shopping for NHS staff and those most at risk from the virus – allowing everyone to get just what they need, when they can.
Where does this leave brands?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that all this will blow over, and people will naturally go back to the way things were. My current prediction is that you’d be wrong.
The impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s health, economy and industry would have been unimaginable some months ago. Many people have lost their livelihoods at the hands of companies who have previously rolled out messages of care and community. Under immense pressure and scrutiny, the hypocrisy and double-standards of some brands are showing through the cracks.
Whatever life looks like after the pandemic, people will naturally be suspicious. It’s vital that brands take positive steps to contribute what they can in this crisis and, at the very least, do their best to protect their staff and customers. When all this is over – however far away that might seem right now – the public will remember those who helped.