There’s little doubt about the headline finding of our Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update. A 24-point rise since January has seen the UK government record its highest levels of public trust in two decades. Yet, while this surge in governmental faith is widely expected to be a coronavirus-induced bubble, the study also suggests we have arrived at a moment of long-term reckoning for business.
The last three months have seen a fundamental – and likely permanent – shift in expectations of the private sector. Rather than sell to them, the public now looks to brands and businesses to mobilise in the ongoing fight against Covid-19. To donate to the front line, work closely with competitors to tackle the virus, shift production to meet the urgent needs of their communities and make this critical battle core to their mission.
What’s more, their view of the way business has responded so far makes for grim reading. A crisis of both conscience and competence. Only 38 per cent of people believe companies have done well in putting people before profits while CEOs rank bottom of the pile when it comes to perceptions of how leaders in the public eye have reacted to the demands of the pandemic. Perhaps most tellingly of all, just 42 per cent of people think businesses are preparing effectively for recovery.
With the UK’s collective thoughts beginning to turn to a social and economic revival, companies therefore need to think carefully about how they lead in the short-, medium- and long-term. About what their permission space is, where their brand has license to go and how they communicate this to meet and exceed the evolved expectations of their stakeholders in a new, dynamic operating environment.
As we move out of the initial ‘continuity’ phase of this crisis and into the ‘stability’ phase, the job for companies is to build hope, defining themselves as playing a supportive and indispensable role in society, not an extractive one. Key here is partnership and collaboration, whether with industry bodies, NGOs or government. As Financier, Author and Campaigner, Dame Helena Morrisey, said during our Trust Barometer panel event last week: “Businesses now need to reach out to government and ask ‘how can we work with you to solve the problems the country faces?’ rather than wait to be told what to do.”
This stability phase is also the time for companies to reintroduce commercial messaging – albeit through the lens of what they’re doing to help people. Being seen to be solving the problems presented by this pandemic is the only way to earn permission to sell products and services. Simply short-cutting to selling will come across as both tone deaf and self-serving.
Rightly, many companies are lifting their sights to the ‘recovery’ phase. The period when Big Government-style interventions take a back seat and the glare of the spotlight falls on business. Central to companies’ success in this phase will be building a renewed sense of confidence among the communities in which they operate, prioritising the health and safety of employees while beginning to introduce new normal practices that mix historic elements of brand activity with those informed by the current circumstances.
As another of our Trust Barometer panel members, Lord Browne of Madingely, explained: “Companies must accept they now have a permanent role in thinking about health. Why, for example, when we’ve spent three months worrying about a virus that affects people’s lungs, would we not take action on an issue like air quality in the longer-term?”
Indeed, it’s in the ‘recovery’ phase that the lasting impact of this pandemic will truly start to be felt. The moment when businesses must consider what, in a post-Covid world, their new brand DNA looks like, what their renewed purpose is and what valuable role they can play – and be seen to play – in society. All this then needs to be communicated in a timely way to ensure relevance and appropriateness to both internal and external stakeholders.
So, what, then, are the four key takeaways for businesses at this pivotal moment in their long-term future?
First, that they must show up and do their part. Absenteeism will be punished while companies that act with confidence and show their value to society are the ones that will succeed. Second, acting alone is not the way forward. By partnering with other companies and government, businesses can achieve more than they could in isolation with positioning themselves as a collaborative part of the solution, not a self-interested barrier to it. Third, they must sell by solving. Only by providing solutions to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic will they earn the right to be heard and bought from. And fourth, they need to communicate in a distinct brand voice that balances emotion, compassion and facts. This has always been the case, but the consequences of tonal missteps have become deeper and more severe than ever.
Above all, now is the time for business to prove to people that we’re all in this together. In the words of Pippa Crerar, Political Editor of The Daily Mirror and Chair of The Parliamentary Press Gallery, last week: “The public expects companies to take a hit like the rest of us. Those who step up and do what’s necessary to lead us out of this crisis will win.”