Brands and trust; the protectors, pioneers and promoters

COVID has created a new lens for people to view brands through, a lens with higher expectations. People now have opinions on how companies treat their staff, how tuned in or tone-deaf brands have been in their communications and how values or priorities have been revealed during the pandemic. This is not necessarily about winners or losers in lockdown, but rather how an extraordinary event of such global magnitude has encouraged greater scrutiny.

As a barometer of feelings and a way to understand shifting priorities we always ask people to conduct tasks prior to research sessions, focusing on what brands they admire and trust, who they don’t and how they feel more generally about life.

We have seen that people’s feelings shift substantially and this has been well documented in the many COVID studies in the public domain. Anxiety levels have fallen from a high in March although still bubble under the surface. Spring and early summer contentment with a less stressful lifestyle has morphed into late summer frustration and boredom and nervousness about the future.

People’s attitudes towards companies are currently heavily COVID catalysed as this is what is top of mind. A deep respect exists for companies that have been seen to be ‘doing their part’ during this time. It’s no longer simply providing a service, it’s company x has kept my family fed during lockdown. The stakes are higher and the appreciation is deeper.

There has been plenty to admire. We have observed three positive behaviours; the Protectors, Pioneers and Promoters.

  • Protector: Those who have demonstrated an instinctive desire to help customers and protect employees
  • Pioneer: Those who will change the future, help build a better world
  • Promoter: Those who champion people and causes to provide more equality

And if we had a final ‘p’ it would be a more literal focus on product. This has been a time, not for brands but for products, services and behaviour to shine. The past few months have been a time where convenience and customer care has been absolutely valued. People trust brands that have delivered, and don’t trust brands that have not. Some of this has been on a broader reputational level and some has been on a day to day level.

The Protectors

These are companies that have strong reputations and treat people well, both customers and employees. How companies treat their staff generally has been catalysed by COVID into everyday news and conversations. There has also been some scrutiny about what companies have said publicly and what they actually do.

A great example here is Timpson. Prior to COVID, their story was not that familiar but since then, the focus on people, looking after staff, providing jobs for ex-prisoners etc has been a great contrast to, for example, the behaviour of Wetherspoons, another British brand that has a traditional name and customer base.

Of course John Lewis and Waitrose have always led this category of trust and continue to do so. We would also place Amazon in this category, they may be a hard brand to love but they have quite literally delivered for their customers over the past few months.

The most surprising set of brands we can include here are fast food brands. People realised how serious COVID was, not when schools closed but when McDonald’s did. And during lockdown, fast food brand trackers saw cravings skyrocket and recreating fast food at home became a thing, so much so that KFCs playful ‘we’ll take it from here’ has probably been the stand out ad over the lockdown period.

The Pioneers

These are futurist brands who provide hope that the major issues in the world can be solved or resolved, whether the virus, the environment or social and cultural tensions.

The hero of this category has been Tesla - and has been for quite some time. There has been a massive growth in interest in electric cars during the lockdown and whilst Elon Musk may be a controversial character, this all adds to his maverick, rebellious appeal.

Technology brands generally have been big winners, with office workers-at-home suddenly finding Microsoft Teams and Zoom to be, quite literally, job savers. Indeed Microsoft is a brand in resurgence. Teams has been a great replacement for Skype, Bill Gates’ healthcare philanthropy is back in the news and if they acquire TikTok, they’ll be seen as saviours to the world’s teens.

Pioneering doesn’t have to be about technology. Skincare brands have been widely mentioned as women especially, seek products that are more natural than cosmetic, do little harm to the environment and promote health in all its forms. ‘The Ordinary’ skin care brand making typically expensive ingredients more affordable and accessible is one such example. Another brand mentioned for its long-term ethical products is, whilst people have become much more critical of mainstream, heavyweight brands such as Estee Lauder and Clinique.

Companies that may not have before are also leaning into being pioneers as they’ve had to a chance to flex their agile muscles in response to the Covid effort. Take Brewdog making hand sanitiser; they used the resources they had to do what they could in an unexpected way.

The Promoters

The COVID era has been defined by racial and social strife as well as being a healthcare crisis. The spotlight has been shone on discrimination and privilege in all parts of life and with an educational crisis and impending recession this is likely to increase.

Brands that have been seen to champion diversity and social causes are NikeBen and Jerry’s and even Yorkshire Tea. They have been confident, open and uncompromising in their support of Black Lives Matter and ongoing refugee causes. They have openly courted dissent from right wing groups knowing that what they lose in sales will be minimal to what they will gain as forward looking, socially driven organisations.

The out-of-touch

For as many brands who have captured the COVID zeitgeist, there have been twice as many who have been tone deaf. This tends to be a mix of those who are on the wrong side of causes that have touched the mainstream (Nestle and Palm Oil for instance) or who have not looked after employees (all of whom have friends, families and wide networks to share their news). Worse still, they have not functioned effectively, and let down customers when they needed their services the most.

The profile of Jeff Bezos doesn’t encourage people to love Amazon. He is compared negatively with the philanthropy of Bill Gates and the newfound love for Microsoft. Bill Gates himself has been subject to a host of conspiracy theories, who have found plenty of willing believers in the leadership void created by COVID.

Virgin and Richard Branson have also disappointed people. People have admired his entrepreneurial, maverick spirit for so long but he has felt unsympathetic in this crisis.

“Richard Branson doesn't treat the staff very well, urged them to take unpaid leave when he's literally one of the richest people in the world. Think they’re selfish as well, they had an NHS fundraiser and 50% off the profits when to them”

       Megan, 20, hairdresser, Manchester

My eyes have been really opened to some companies’ behaviour especially during recent events. Virgin Atlantic I would have had absolutely confidence in previously. But this year (granted unprecedented circumstances) they haven’t dealt with things very well and it has just meant I’ve lost confidence in them as a business

       Andy, 41, Architect, Surrey

There has also been a focus on how companies have performed under pressure and airlines have had to deal with shocking circumstances. However, Jet2 seem to have helped, refunded and looked after customers in a way that TUI for example, has struggled to do so.

A brand I feel let down by is TUI. My mum had a holiday to Spain. She has had no correspondence, no response to her emails no responses to her calls to them requesting a refund following cancellation. She’s had nothing. The holiday was booked for May and they haven’t even had a decency to email us I would not be using them again. We’re in August now and not a peep!

      Steven, 42, Events manager, Glasgow

Boohoo and the world of fast fashion have also had an uncompromising light shone upon it, with the revelations of conditions at its COVID hit factory. People were already uncomfortable, even with their own addiction to fast fashion, but these revelations have made the sector become unpalatable.

Another brand rapidly losing credibility is Facebook. The data sale storm, the right wing conspiracy theories, the lack of protection and the lack of appeal of Mark Zuckerberg himself (especially compared to the swaggering Elon Musk) have made people suspicious about Facebook. The main positives now are the role of Facebook communities and the marketplace in bringing people together and tapping into these ‘local’ networks feels a good direction for the brand.

And finally, dare we say it … Apple! The brand that has been the most admired for the past decade or more. In fact it is so admired that we often ban people from mentioning it because it’s such an obvious example. Of course, Apple still has plenty of fans, but the criticisms are getting louder. The life time of products has long been thought to be engineered to make them short-lasting, stories about poor working conditions and high suicide rates in Chinese factories have seeped into people’s consciousness and now they have picked a fight with the world’s teenagers by removing Fortnite from the App store. It’s a case of watch this space …

I’m done with Apple. Always after money, not people's wellbeing. Hypocritical, prices are still high during a pandemic.

       Javier, 29, Sports retailer, New York

Pauline McGowan & Joanne Oguntimehin

Research Manager     Research Executive