At the beginning of 2020, before Coronavirus, social distancing and self-isolating were the most used words in the English language, we gazed into our crystal ball at Democracy and made a prediction.
We said that the brands that would prosper most in the year to come would be those which had an authentic connection with people and conveyed a clear purpose beyond ‘making stuff and selling stuff’.
While no one could have predicted the way that the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world and changed the way we all live, that prediction about meaningful connections between brands and the public has been brought sharply into focus since the outbreak.
As the pandemic has spread over the past weeks, with economic, trading and social restrictions put in place, the different reactions from business owners has been stark and in this social media age, the ability of the public to ‘call out’ the good guys and the bad guys is a powerful voice indeed.
The Chinese word for crisis contains elements of the word ‘danger’ and the word ‘opportunity’ and in this current global crisis, those two options are what brands have before them.
In more modern parlance, it can be summed up in four words: Don’t be a d**k.
The business decisions taken by the likes of Wetherspoons, who only agreed to pay staff laid off by the closure of the pub chain after heavy public pressure and followed this up by refusing to pay suppliers, brought universal criticism.
Likewise, Sports Direct appeared opportunistic, grasping and leaving staff open to unnecessary danger by claiming to be an essential business because it sold exercise equipment and therefore had to stay open on the high street. It took government intervention to close the chain down.
The ‘bad guys’ list is a long one. Britannia Hotels has had not one, but two ill-judged moves so far in this crisis. First, sacking and evicting staff by letter at a hotel in Scotland, then evicting homeless people from a hotel in Manchester where they had been placed in a bid to limit the spread of the virus.
The common thread is that a time when we all want to feel in this situation together and examples of grassroots help in communities has shown the best of humanity, companies which have moved quickly to lay off staff, to defer payments or to appear more interested in profits and share prices than human lives have had nowhere to hide.
We do live in a reactionary age on social media, where every mistake is pounced upon by the mob. However, in this instance, the keyboard warriors lining up to take a shot at these brands and the hashtags urging consumers to boycott them, are largely justified.
The overwhelming sentiment is that people will remember. Not just the brand you are, but also the people you are. When all this is over and normal life resumes again, the public will be considered in where they choose to spend.
Which brings us to the companies who have got it right. Those who have put people first, whether their own employees or the wider public.
Home Bargains were very quick in the early days of the crisis to announce it had set aside a £30million fund to pay staff no matter what, while Brewdog and some other alcohol companies turned their distilleries over to the production of hand sanitiser.
Friends of the trade, Travis Perkins (which includes Tile Giant and Wickes), were quick to protect staff and customers by announcing a closure. Peddling behind the scenes to find a safe solution to ensure continuity of supply to essential jobs including hospitals, care homes and public buildings.
Dyson answered a government call to turn its production line over to the manufacture of 15,000 ventilators, while car production facilities in multiple UK locations have done the same. Waitrose and Tesco were among the supermarkets who paid staff extra and pushed cash grants back into local communities to keep non-profit organisations going.
When the day comes that we all begin to rebuild after COVID-19, those brands which have put people first will be the ones repaid by the people’s support and custom.