Brand Reputation in a Post-COVID World

4/6/2021
— Ruth Allchurch, MD, UK 

With the world going through its most urgent need for transformation, PR professionals have had to help brands make decisions that align to their reputation and purpose. We’ve seen how brands have felt inclined to take more risks, but what’s the potential impact to reputation in the short and long term?

Following on from a panel discussion with the PRCA Consumer Group, WE's Managing Director, UK, Ruth Allchurch and vice chair of the PRCA Consumer Group discusses brand reputation in a post COVID-19 world.

On authentic brand reputation

What do you think the past 12 months have taught brands about building and preserving reputation? And who has learned these lessons the hard way?

Ruth: Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. Brands have always had to work hard to achieve cut-through, whether that is to stand out from competitors, create buzz in a new category, or take a stand on an issue. COVID-19 hasn’t changed that. 

When I think about winners and losers in the reputation space over the past 12 months, the brands that handled things badly are those that jumped on an issue and misgauged it or led with comms that didn’t feel authentic. The winners are the exact opposite — the companies that spoke up authentically around an issue and whose communications were in lockstep with their DNA. 

One example of a brand that has successfully navigated its response throughout the pandemic is BrewDog. At the start of the crisis, the brewery/pub chain quickly pivoted its offer from alcohol in punk beer to alcohol in punk hand sanitiser, packing it up and supplying it for the NHS and charities. More recently it offered its pubs for use as vaccine centres (and even offered a free pint to everyone who had the vaccine).

Speaking of social initiatives, what is your take on the rising importance of ESG (environmental, social and governance)? It is a hot topic for investors and the financial markets, but has this filtered down to consumers yet?

Ruth: Broadly, I think consumers are starting to ask more questions related to a brand’s ESG credentials, and there are pockets of consumers that care greatly. We have seen that with the rise of consumer brands gaining and seeking B Corp status. Traceability and provenance of products and sustainability in supply chains are moving up the corporate agenda, and this is not just in the areas of food and drink but across the consumer spectrum. Studies that have been done in the luxury fashion brand space, for example, have shown that coming out of COVID-19, consumers are more likely to have concerns over issues like local production and reduced waste.

During and out of the pandemic, we have also seen companies implementing more programmes focused on employee welfare and support for suppliers. Some companies have localized their supply chains, introducing transparency on product sourcing, etc. Meanwhile really savvy consumer companies are seeking new opportunities to integrate sustainability across their core business operations: P&G recently announced that Old Spice and Secret deodorants would appear in plastic-free paper packing, and Mondelez confirmed it was on track to reach its target of 100% recyclable packaging and 100% sustainable cocoa sourcing by 2025.

What we eat, what we wear, who we associate ourselves with — all these are ultimately a reflection of our personal values and purpose, so I believe it is becoming a non-negotiable for brands to tell those stories and be transparent.

 

Showing up for the consumer

Many people are predicting that the changes we’ve seen in consumer behavior and consumption models due to the pandemic are likely to be far longer term than we might have initially thought. How can brands respond to these changes to become more agile and impactful, and drive real differentiation?

Ruth: I think the focus for brands needs to be less about how they can stand out and more fundamentally about how they can be of use to consumers — that is one of my take-outs from this pandemic. Brands need to be able to demonstrate their use to consumers more than ever. And this really impacts the format and the channel they choose to communicate with consumers. Again, the focus shouldn’t be about being unnecessarily clever or ‘out-there’, but being useful — how can they reach consumers in a way that works for the consumer.

During the pandemic, we sought advice and relevant content from sources online and many brands cut through by offering useful products and services packaged up in a useful way — a way that was easy for the consumer to consume. Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer surveyed over 25K consumers across 30 markets and revealed that in the first month of lockdown web browsing had increased by 70% and social media engagement by 61% over normal usage rates. That is why the power of the influencer continues to surge — third-party endorsement over paid-for broadcasting continues to put PR and powerful SEO front and center in my view.

Finally, what closing thought did you leave the panel with? Is it time to rewrite the reputation-building rulebook?

Any comms or marketing carries risk. So no, I don’t think it is about rewriting the rulebook but instead focusing on the fundamentals each and every time — be useful, be relevant and be purposeful.

 

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