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Brands behaving badly... spells doom

The Drum 08 Apr 2020 06:30
'Banking brands will come under the spotlight'

As the world faces its gravest crisis since the second world war and the Great Depression, it is inevitable that our attention will focus on behaviour – of all sorts.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic affects just about everyone, will impact every corner and sector of every economy around the world; and because the disease occupies just about every square inch of newsprint and every minute on virtually every type of media, there’s no other story in town and, in developed economies at least, it feels as if we are on some sort of war footing.

And while during the war and the Depression, negative coverage tended to focus on the bad behaviour of individuals or groups (from nations to companies), in our brand-dominated age, the focus in 2020 falls on brands.

Interestingly, earlier on in this developing story, coverage tended to focus on the brands that were doing good things, behaving altruistically.

So, earlier this week the housebuilder Taylor Wimpey – one of the first construction firms to close down its sites – said it was scrapping annual bonuses and announced that its board were taking a 30% pay cut; and, the same day a number of major banks announced that, following order from the Bank of England they were scrapping shareholder dividends and were thinking of doing the same with bonuses.

Given the scale and reach of the suffering caused by this pandemic, the public – and perhaps governments, particularly if they’re looking to get re-elected – aren’t going to forget or forgive those brands which transgress, and not just banks either, which brings me neatly onto a fascinating survey – The Trust Barometer, compiled by PR giant Edelman from 12,000 respondents in leading global economies – published this week.

Already, reveals the Barometer, consumers are demanding that the must change the way they interact and communicate during the Covid-19 crisis, with 65% agreeing with the statement 'How well a brand responds to this crisis will have a huge impact on my likelihood to buy that brand in the future'. When looking at individual country responses, the figure for the UK was 64%, with China (interestingly) way out in front with 88%. One-third of respondents said they had already stopped using a brand that was not acting appropriately in response to the global crisis.

And, even more importantly, consumers are holding companies to very high standards – the first thing they demand of brands and their owners is for them to 'protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers, even if it means suffering big financial losses'; with 90% of global respondents supporting this statement and 52% saying brands 'must' do this to earn or keep their trust.

This is the new normal – it’s no longer good enough to be 'great value' or 'good quality', brands now not only have to respond to the crisis in a positive way, but they also have to be seen to be doing so. 90% of respondents expect brands to keep the public fully informed of how they are changing the way they operate in light of the global health crisis.

Unsurprisingly, the most trusted spokespeople are doctors and health authorities (trusted by 78%), but strikingly, brand CEOs and brand ambassadors/experts were still trusted by 44% and 48% respectively, meaning that high ranking directors and marketers have an opportunity to build on and reinforce themselves as trusted advisers (or need to, depending on your point of view).

And what part can marcomms agencies play? I think it will be a crucial one – one of wise counsel as opposed to just being the “people who sell”. Agencies need to focus on enhancing their role as protectors of brands. In this way, traditional agencies, which understand brand stories better than anyone (perhaps even more than the brands themselves), who know the power of visual and textual narratives to change behavior and reassure, can claw back some of the ground they have lost to ‘in-house’ and the big consulting firms.

Tony Walford is a partner at M&A advisory Green Square

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