The brands that won the hearts of consumers in 2020 were the ones that stepped up, even when they didn’t have to. Those that didn’t are now lagging behind but it’s not too late to make a difference, writes Mary Winter.

2020 was an extraordinary year, placing pressure on brand reputations like never before. In a climate of anxiety and economic struggle, some brands were able to step up and win the hearts of the people, building their reputations in extraordinary times. Others had their reputations tarnished.

People did not expect ‘business as usual’ in 2020, and actions spoke louder than words.

Some brands, even those with much-needed services, failed to see the significance of their role in the community and simply dropped their bundle at a critical time. Some brands expressed greed taking advantage of the situation, price gouging those in need. Others treated staff poorly.

There are many brands that missed the opportunity to be good citizens. They now face the prospect of being compared to the shining stars of the pandemic.

Through qualitative research at the tail end of 2020, we asked consumers to tell us which brands ‘won or lost’ in 2020.

Responses suggest brands that failed to shine need to make key shifts in 2021 and beyond.

So where should they begin?

Develop an understanding of your brand’s social role

The pandemic has shown us that many low-involvement categories and brands such as supermarkets, home delivery services, entertainment providers and office supplies are part of the very fabric of our existence. Simple things such as the postal service are integral to our survival.

Businesses in these categories had a clear social role and that was to keep society going. These brands needed to place society before self, and many did.

In Australia and New Zealand, supermarket workers became akin to doctors and nurses, helping feed people who were fearful of food (and toilet paper) insecurity with our research showing supermarkets were the first to win the praise of consumers in both countries.

This wasn’t simply a matter of corporate governance. Instead, it was about being there ‘for the people’ and demonstrating empathy to earn trust.

It is likely that this will be a new lens through which the consumer views the brand landscape moving forward.

For brands that have fallen behind in the past year, the first step is to make an honest assessment of the role they play in society, during good times and bad.

Initiative beyond obligation

Some brands did not have a primary role in the pandemic, but nevertheless rose up to help where they could. Insurance companies reduced premiums because people were in lockdown and not taking risks with their car or home. Most travel and tourism companies generously refunded deposits.

In our research, people criticised big businesses that failed to act, even if they were not in a ‘frontline’ category, for example, energy companies and health insurers.

It is unlikely people will simply accept or admire self-centred behaviour from brands in the future, especially in times of crisis.

For brands that failed to act in the pandemic, now is the time to think about how to make a difference in a way that rises above self-interest.

Agility and innovation

Winning brands did not hang around in the early stages of the pandemic. Some banks and superannuation companies called people spontaneously to offer solutions and check they were supported. Hospitality businesses quickly converted to offering takeaway.

Conversely, some brands acted like they were victims of the pandemic.

Our research demonstrates that a ‘never give up’ mentality is part of a resilient attitude in the minds of Australians and New Zealanders. The year’s most resilient brands found new solutions to help their businesses and consumers.

Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, it is not a time to be slow or lag behind. The brand leaders have gathered energy and momentum through fast innovations and timely responses. In this new world order, consumers expect movers and shakers.

Still, the pandemic is far from over and it is not too late to rise up and support the community. There is still much scope to shine.

Even if your brand cannot make a difference to COVID-19, expect that innovating to help others, based on insight into what you mean to peoples’ lives, in a manner that’s distinctive and true to your brand, is the way to build a great brand in 2021 and beyond.