Businesses must put people before profit to survive Covid-19 with their brand and reputation intact

The arrival of Coronavirus heralded chaos for thousands of companies the world over. For some, the sudden loss of custom, disruption or cash-flow issues – or all three – will prove a challenge too far. But for many it will not be the end. They will come out the other side, not unscathed but with their brand and reputation intact. 

Covid-19 poses a threat like nothing most of us have ever seen in our lifetime – and the likes of which we hope never to encounter again. It has forced us to think less about ourselves and more about others – not just our own nearest and dearest, but our wider community. It’s a collective effort. Similarly, businesses face a test like no other – how will they contribute to our collective effort? Will they do the right thing even if it hurts profits?

Will they put people before profit? 

Many small businesses are fighting for survival, and with it livelihoods, but companies across the world – large and small – face the same moral dilemma; from hair salons and nail parlours through to large retailers. None of these businesses have been ordered to close, but are unable to continue ‘business as usual’ in a safe manner and in compliance with social distancing guidelines. if everyone followed the government advice to avoid unnecessary social contact, these businesses would have no customers, but that simply is not the case. 

Should businesses close their doors until danger has passed, or choose to remain open and put both customers and employees at risk? Should they continue as normal without introducing new measures to help reduce the threat of infection?

Today, Mothers’ Day in the UK, social media is awash with images of crowds and close contact – reputational kryptonite for any brand seen to be facilitating it. 

In crude terms, businesses must make a choice between profit and reputation. Many brands are choosing the former, at the expense of the latter.

Some brands, once loved, will find their brand power and consumer trust significantly diminished as a result of their stubborn refusal to heed the writing already on the wall, determined to keep their doors open for as long as possible – to the detriment of their employees.

Take Waterstones for example – a brand I’ve admired for many years. I have demonstrated that admiration by spending hundreds of pounds on books which I could have purchased from Amazon for much less. Its well-designed, welcoming stores and their helpful staff have proven a winning formula, nailing the traditional bricks and mortar format while so many others fail. However, a new Twitter thread, begun by a Waterstones employee, threatens to damage the brand, suggesting that the retailer is putting staff at risk by failing to introduce new safety measures and refusing to pay employees sick pay when forced to self-isolate.

As we battle this new disease, businesses that fail to do their bit will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Will Waterstones be one of them? No brand is perfect – and consumers are largely willing to acknowledge that; Sainsbury’s’ efforts during the pandemic will be remembered for the right reasons thanks to regular daily emails from CEO, Mike Coupe, outlining its actions and commitment to do the right thing by vulnerable groups – despite the fact that Click and Collect slots remain non-existent and its stores are busier than on Christmas Eve. The brand – along with the other major grocery retailers – is doing its best in a difficult situation. Asda and Sainsbury’s – among others no doubt – will pay staff who need to isolate for 12-weeks in full, earning admiration from customers and staff alike. It will pay off.

While, yes, Sainsbury’s can perhaps afford to be magnanimous while it rakes in huge profits fuelled by panic buying – while stores like Waterstones may well lose sales – brands should consider the value of reputation. Reputation has a monetary value. When all of this is over, will we remember Waterstones for doing the right thing and protecting its staff?

Will customers choose to come back because they love the brand and the in-store experience? Or will they stick with alternative retailers like Amazon, their brand loyalty diminished? 

John Lewis, TK Maxx and Primark are just some of the brands getting ahead of explicit government directives to announce temporary retail closures. When this has passed, they can rest assured that they did the right thing, their reputation intact.

Back in February, thousands were due to attend MIPIM, the annual property conference in Cannes – but as coronavirus gained ground in Europe, doubt began to form as to whether it would go ahead, and if it was safe to attend. Organisers Reed Midem held on until the eleventh hour, insisting that 90 per cent of delegates would still be attending, despite the very-obvious mounting risk. Even as a student was diagnosed with Covid-19 at a Nice hospital, they remained resolute. Finally, its hand was forced by the announcement that gatherings of more than 5,000 people were banned in France. Their reputation has taken a hit as a result, but it remains to be seen whether trust can be repaired. In the UK, property agent Avison Young was the first to stick its head above the parapet, announcing it would not be attending MIPIM, prioritising the health of its employees. Others followed suit, but Avison Young will be remembered for putting people first, despite the financial cost.

As we battle the Covid-19 pandemic together – playing our part in flattening the curve, protecting our NHS and saving lives – businesses must take great care to ensure that their actions reflect the brand and values they claim to hold dear. 

Their actions will be remembered long after this crisis has passed.

Months from now, when restaurants, bars and cafes reopen and people once again take to the streets, those businesses that showed little regard for their employees, putting profit before people in a grim determination to fill the coffers while the sun still shines – despite the obvious risk to their employees – may well find themselves once again starting from scratch, their loyal customers having deserted them, instead choosing to reward those that chose to put people first.

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