Brands will be defined by how they handled the virus

Brands have to make tough choices affecting customers and staff during this pandemic, but acting honourably and communicating honestly will preserve trust.

How often have you heard people talk about “unprecedented times” since the middle of March? I have thus far resisted the use of the term, but the reality is that these are such times. Never have we lived with such uncertainty, with such fear.

Adrenaline is coursing through our bodies, all the time, but neither of the two normal responses to the release of that hormone – flight or fight – are open to us. Nor are we able to take comfort from being with our family, our friends, our community. We have to cope on our own or with our household, all the time, and that is just those of us who are lucky enough to be in lockdown. Imagine how stressful it is if you are having to go out to work, whether in health or social care, a supermarket, public transport, or delivery?

Never have we lived with such uncertainty, with such fear.

We have been incredibly compliant when it comes to maintaining lockdown and social distancing – the danger was clear and the need to protect ourselves and support the NHS (something we all cherish) resonated. But we want to plan, to dream, to get ‘back to normal’ (not that we can until we have a vaccine). The uncertainty is relentless. As humans we seek certainty, even when we know that the truth might be painful or scary – that is why we go to investigate the noise in the night.

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We are all searching for the truth; solid facts on which we can anchor our decisions, our future lives. It is hardly a surprise that according to Ofcom, the BBC services are the most-used source of news across the UK (something I hope will be remembered by government when the charter negotiations start). But we want more. We are craving more. What we would really like is to be able to trust politicians, but that trust has been eroded over decades.

Honesty pays

So, is there are an opportunity for brands to meet this demand? In normal times, the answer would be a resounding yes. This is, after all, what successful businesses excel in – identifying a need and meeting it. But the uncertainties plaguing us individuals are also besetting brands. How do brands behave in these unsettled and unsettling times?

The rules of engagement are the same as always. Be honest, be sincere and think carefully about your audiences. In our current circumstances, colleagues need to be prioritised. Getting your internal communications wrong will scupper all your other engagement. There’s absolutely no point doing lots of above the line about how caring you are when everyone knows (and they will) that you have treated staff really badly.

Be honest, be sincere and think carefully about your audiences.

And now more than ever you need to trust your colleagues enough to acknowledge that the future is uncertain – but you do need a plan. In my experience, staff teams will understand completely if you say this is what has happened so far, and while we can’t be sure what the future will bring this is what we are doing for now, at least until we know more.

I strongly believe that those brands which act with candour and authenticity will benefit in the long term. I think their staff, customers, consumers and, possibly for the first time, investors will remember and reward those who behave well. That doesn’t mean that businesses that have to furlough staff or cut jobs will be punished; what will matter is the manner in which they take do it.

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Being straight with people, explaining why decisions have been made and taking responsibility for them will pay off. Lots of us have a great deal of time on our hands, spending much more of it on social media. We are making daily judgements on who is having a good pandemic (there are a host of websites tracking organisations’ behaviour if we don’t have time to do it ourselves) and making our views public on our timelines.

It is interesting to map this type of public sentiment (which I know isn’t wholly accurate) against share price. There are a few brands that I am far from sure will recover, not because of the impact of the virus and lockdown but because of the cavalier attitude of the CEO towards staff and public safety.

It is possible to communicate tough decisions and come out well. A great example is the very early intervention made by the CEO of Marriott, Arne Sorenson. He wasn’t giving good news, far from it, he was laying lots of people off, but he did it with empathy and humility.

He didn’t pretend that he had all the answers and somewhat counter-intuitively that makes him more trustworthy. Because none of us know all the answers, not this time around. All we can do is be honest about our limitations and humble enough to ask for help to address them.