With the COVID pandemic spreading across the globe, almost every aspect of our lives has been affected – primarily due to stay-home and social distancing measures implemented to impede or break the transmission of the virus.
These measures have affected how goods and services are sold, and even how businesses operate in a physical space. Many socially-responsible businesses have now moved into the virtual sphere, enabling consumers to purchase goods and services online. Moreover, businesses have put in place work-from-home measures in order to ensure the health and safety of their employees.
However, the COVID pandemic has also brought into the public eye businesses that have neglected the health and safety of their employees, or have implemented unethical business practices to profit from consumer behaviours such as panic buying and hoarding.
Other examples of unethical business practices include refusing to pay employees during government-mandated shutdowns, or unfairly raising prices for customers – otherwise known as price gouging – of face masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectants and other essential items.
Throw online review sites and social media into the mix, add to this the number of businesses that have an online presence, and what these businesses have on their hands is a recipe for accelerated brand reputation disaster.
What the Numbers Say
In a survey conducted by PR agency Porter Novelli in the UK, it was found that – out of 1,052 adults – 71% of respondents said that if they learned about a company’s irresponsible or deceptive business practices during a crisis, they would stop buying its products or services.
Conversely, 69% of respondents felt better about companies that publicly announced what they were doing to provide support for both employees and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, a survey conducted by Trustpilot found that more than a third (33.6%) of consumers were checking reviews of online products and services more than they did before lockdown measures were implemented.
In Singapore’s context, it has been found that 79% of Singaporeans are more likely to purchase from brands with a strong social conscience.
Put all of the above numbers together and the key message is the increasing importance of preserving a brand’s reputation on digital channels and platforms – especially during times of crisis.
Preserving Brand Reputation: What Can Businesses Do?
Perhaps most importantly, it is crucial that businesses make ethical decisions during such times of crisis – not only with respect to its customers, but to its employees as well. After all, businesses are run by people, and a pandemic affects these very same people.
As such, businesses should initiate measures that preserve the health and welfare of its workforce during times of adversity. Such measures include safe distancing in the workplace, implementing work-from-home solutions, and exploring options beyond lay-offs and furloughs.
Another aspect of preserving brand reputation that businesses can address is their behaviour towards customers. Whilst the prerogative for profit is the norm for businesses, a pandemic should not be seen as an opportunity to raise prices for in-demand and essential goods and services. As highlighted, such practices will have damaging implications for a brand’s reputation that will last far beyond the duration of any pandemic.
Instead, businesses should adopt socially-responsible business practices – and display sensitivity in communicating such practices to its various audiences – in order to preserve or build brand reputation. But what exactly can businesses do?
1. Establish a Digital Presence
With buyer behaviour shifting from in-person transactions and into the realm of online shopping, it can be argued that there’s no better time than now for businesses to update their digital footprint, and utilise digital channels and platforms in order to communicate to consumers and preserve brand reputation. But firstly, brands should ensure that they have a digital presence.
A digital presence encompasses assets such as a search engine-optimised website and social media platforms that are relevant to the brand’s target audience. These channels should then be used to divulge information about measures the business has implemented in order to ensure the safety of its staff and customers.
2. Establish Omni-channel Purchasing and Fulfilment Capabilities
With the drop in footfall at retail stores due to stay-home measures, one avenue that brands can explore in order to assure customers that it has their safety at heart is to establish omni-channel purchasing and fulfilment capabilities. An example of this is Allbirds – a sustainable footwear brand that established its e-commerce platform on Tmall (Alibaba’s B2C e-commerce platform), and unified its e-commerce and in-store inventory and logistics. Allbirds also implemented a video chat feature that allowed customers to speak to store associates and view product displays – essentially replicating the in-store experience online. Not only did this initiative enable Allbirds to continue doing business, it also sent a reassuring signal to its customers that it was looking out for their health and safety.
3. Build Empathy through Social Campaigns
Instead of the usual sales-driven approach taken by marketing and advertising campaigns, brands should instead focus on a responsibility-first approach. In other words, brands should humanise their communications and campaigns in order to “empathise” rather than “sell” – ideally through social platforms as this enables two-way communications between a brand and its customers.
For example, Cottonelle – one of the largest producers of toilet paper – pushed out its #ShareASquare campaign encouraging the public to “stock up on gratitude” rather than toilet paper during the initial stage of the COVID pandemic. Their campaign discouraged panic buying which runs counterintuitive to any brand’s prerogative to sell more products or services. Through their campaign, Cottonelle “humanised” its brand, conveyed the message that it understood the concerns of the population at large, and displayed empathy towards everyone facing the COVID pandemic.
Another example was Nike’s #playinside and #playfortheworld Twitter campaign which encouraged its audience to do their part in helping to impede the transmission of the coronavirus. This campaign further humanised Nike, and built on its credentials as a socially-responsible brand that could empathise with the difficulties its audience was facing.
4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
A pandemic shouldn’t be a reason for businesses or brands to stay silent. On the contrary, businesses and brands should continue to communicate with their audiences – both external and internal. This is especially important, given that all decisions that the business makes are more closely scrutinised by both employees and customers during a pandemic. As such, any communications should seek to convey a message of responsibility and empathy.
Also, businesses and brands should ensure that their online properties are updated with their stance on how they’re dealing with the pandemic. This could include changes to operating hours, measures implemented to keep both employees and customers safe, as well as notifications regarding service disruptions or stock availability.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Whilst current circumstances may seem bleak for businesses due to the pandemic, now is not the time for brands to be passive when it comes to maintaining their reputations; in a rapidly changing environment, brands need to remain on the front foot.
Again, surveys have shown that more vocal brands are perceived as having responded better to the pandemic. Consequently, it is these brands and businesses that are more likely to reach that light at the end of the tunnel, and even thrive once the world can revert to “normalcy” post pandemic.
For now though, brands and businesses should stay focused by responding quickly, transparently and fixing problems within their control, and by using digital channels to communicate promptly, empathetically and effectively to stakeholders both internal and external.
To get insights about how your business can successfully adopt and integrate digital technologies in your organisation’s workflows, download Golden Equator Consulting’s whitepaper: “Understanding Digital Transformation and Managing Change – a Guide to Navigating Your Business Through a Complex Digital Landscape”.