It goes without saying that 2020 hasn’t turned out the way anybody expected. Businesses, brands and consumers alike found themselves cast into an alien situation and all parties but the most robust found their financial situation to be radically changed overnight.

One of the key messages to come through this year, whether from your favourite brand, Boris Johnson or your own community, is one of care. As our Prime Minister parroted with admirable zest; “We are all in this together,” and it is the businesses and brands who absorbed that message that have fared better this year.
Lockdown was hard on everybody and nobody had a rulebook on how to navigate the crisis.

With many struggling behind closed doors, there was more public pressure than ever on what brands were doing and how they were communicating. Expectations rose with a survey finding that a brand’s proven support for the local community, as well as their own staff and frontline workers was the most important thing a business or brand must demonstrate in order to secure their loyalty after lockdown (65%).
Second came clarity about health and safety measures taken (60%), while the most effective channel for communication was found to be a brand’s own website. Unsurprisingly, social media was also a popular source for checking about extra measures and safety reassurances at 57%.

The key to customer loyalty is communication. While many marketing budgets were slashed, PR has never been more important from a reputational perspective and the way some brands behaved has set them up for renewed success in 2021 – or not.

Who did well?

Beer brand Brewdog was, unsurprisingly, vocal from the outset. One of the first brands to produce its own hand sanitiser and donate thousands of bottles to the NHS, it remained present throughout lockdown including weighing in on Dominic Cummings’s gaff at Barnard Castle and more recently indulging in good-natured humour with Aldi. Brewdog stayed true to its values and strategy, engaging consumers – and it didn’t hurt that home drinking soared in lockdown.

Again, benefitting from a population living under lockdown, Just Eat saw revenue shoot up in H1 by 44%. Beyond the obvious reasons for the sales boom, the food delivery giant did the right things. On 13 March – long before the pandemic was declared – it rolled out contact-free delivery, therefore ticking the ‘safety’ box. In early April, it introduced a 25% NHS discount resulting in one million meals sold in the first fortnight, and in doing so ticked the box for caring for the community and front line.

North London’s Camden Town Brewery also successfully hit the right note by rebranding its popular Camden Hells lager as ‘Camden Heroes’ and giving away a six-pack of the beer to every NHS worker as a thank you. Yet another brewery, Budweiser, reminded people to check in with each other through its ‘Whassup’ campaign, hitting the ‘care’ message amid fears of a mental health epidemic.

Conversely, other brands failed to evoke the desired sentiment in the public. Volkswagen, for example, increased the distance between the V and W of its logo with the caption: ‘Thanks for keeping your social distance,’ while Guinness replaced the foam of its pint with a sofa to encourage people to stay at home. There was criticism from a fearful population that, though clever, these were short-term PR stunts that failed to instil the desired emotion and trust.

The takeaway from 2020 for brands is communication is key, digital presence is essential and a little humour goes a long way. And the same can be said for PR!