• Keith Wells

"Doing the right thing" should always matter to brands. It really will now.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating an environment like no other we have ever seen. Companies will not have ‘scenario planned’ for this, so the way they are responding is coming from intuition and instinct, rather than a prescribed training manual. We’re seeing which brands have authentic values that are maintained, or even strengthened, in times of real stress. We’re seeing which brands know what ‘doing the right thing’ means. We’re seeing which brands have integrity.

Three types of response are becoming clear: Good, Bad and Indifferent. In this final grouping, many organisations have assured us that they’ll be working differently but still committed to their customers. It’s not BAU but neither is it anything beyond the expected. And in doing so, they’re failing to show any empathy or genuine recognition of what people are having to deal with, and are sadly out of touch.

The Bad group are worse. Some of these have surprised us, acting in ways that contradict what we’ve always felt their brand stood for, and so have lost integrity. Virgin, for example, has undermined its reputation for looking after people and being on the consumer’s side. The ‘popular David against the unpopular Goliath’ has looked like it’s swapped sides.

These brands stand to lose most, if consumers remember their poor behaviour during this time and turn away – it’s a natural human response to any partner who we feel has let us down. “You’re not the person I thought you were” takes a lot of getting over. In a commercial context, that doubt and defection could be disastrous.

Wetherspoons and Sports Direct typify the brands that have ‘lived down to expectations.’ Their initial responses were opportunistic and self-serving: the exact opposite of how the public mood was moving, and of what this new reality demanded. Both have now made U-turns, but patently as a response to bad publicity, rather than any deep reflection of what their brands should stand for.

But no discussion of this behaviour could be complete without mentioning the banks. Once again, the sector has opened itself to accusations of self-interest – and dismantled any rebuilding of consumer trust following its part in the GFC of 2008. Do some people never learn?

Other brands, though, have shown what true values mean, and how to act with integrity. Pret, Ineos, Fullers, BrewDog and Brompton Bikes were quick to make offers, or change commercial arrangements, or re-purpose production facilities that could all make an immediate impact on all sorts of people – and for no obvious commercial gain or to blow their own trumpets. And let’s not forget Mercedes F1, working silently behind the scenes with UCL to develop a new ventilating device. Yes, such behaviour might translate into some kind of later benefit, but we believe they have been driven by a deeper understanding of their brand, of consumers, and of what “the right thing” means and demands of them.

In the three years we have been running The Charisma Index studies, most brands’ integrity has consistently been rated lower than other dimensions, such as purpose, consciousness and courage. As a ‘new normal’ emerges on the other side of this pandemic, we believe integrity will become an important differentiator between competing brands. Consumers will want to associate and identify with those brands that behaved well, and not with those that showed indifference or, worse still, instinctively got it wrong.

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