9 April 2020

Brands behaving badly…? The heroes and villains of COVID-19

by Jacey Bunker

At the risk of sounding like a broken record… we are living in unprecedented times. And for an industry that is built upon insight and learning to shape strategy, it’s a scary time.

So, we, along with all other agencies and brands, find ourselves plunged into a new world where we’re learning as we go, adapting current plans, making new ones and shelving commercially-driven tactical activity for longer-term brand-building.

And it’s in this fast-paced environment that some brands’ actions will be applauded and some brands will become villains – especially during a time when the majority of the British public is sat at home with vast amounts of time on their hands coupled with an underlying sense that there must be SOMEONE they can blame.

So, which brands are getting it right so far?

Pret a Manger
The sandwich chain was first out the gate with its offer of free hot drinks and 50% off everything else for all NHS workers on 18th March, which gained huge traction across all social channels. When all stores closed on 21st March, food was delivered to 120 charities across the UK to help those in need. Since then, the brand has been sharing the recipes of its best-loved products for people to make at home.

New Look
The fashion giant was one of the first retailers to close down on 21st March. It’s extended its returns policy to 90 days to help customers struggling to return items and has introduced a 25% discount for all NHS and service workers.

The brand re-imagined its famous golden arches logo to promote social distancing. Very clever creative work that captured imaginations.

And which brands are making bad choices?

Creativity aside, McDonalds behaviour didn’t follow the example it was praised for setting. Instead of announcing it had closed at the end of the day like other brands, McDonalds announced its closure in the morning, whilst the stores were still open sparking a surge of people visiting the restaurants. No doubt, a financially successful final day but damaging to the brand which cites Responsible Leadership as a core value.

Sports Direct
I doubt many people were surprised when Mike Ashley refused to close his Sports Direct stores claiming they were ‘essential for keeping the public fit and healthy’. He later was forced to issue a public apology after mounting pressure from the Government and public outrage.

The final entry into our rogue’s gallery comes in the shape of national pub chain Wetherspoons. Founder and chairman Tim Martin claimed there was ‘hardly any transmission of the virus within pubs’ and said it was ‘common sense’ to keep pubs open in Britain. Upon being forced to close his venues, he has refused to pay any money to his 40,000 employees until the Government fulfils its promise to cover 80% of wages, instead telling staff to go and work in Tesco.

A lasting impact?

We cannot say to what level each brand’s actions will be remembered once we return to normality – or a new version of normality. We’re beginning to see the immediate impacts for sure; the #PretRecipeBook is trending socially and receiving positive national press coverage. What will be more interesting is to see the longer-term impacts for brands that have behaved badly. As The Sun newspaper knows very well, the British public does not forgive easily.

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