2020 has been a year that none of us could have planned for. It’s been a year of turbulence, but also a year filled with moments that we’ll remember forever. Which brands have thrived, and which have needed to learn a few lessons in communications and branding?
Businesses have had a spotlight shone on the way that they have handled the events of this year. Those that have prioritised staff and customer health was praised, those that delayed action had to rush to change their messaging to avoid a media sh*tstorm.
Remember March? When businesses initially started closing their doors, one smart person created a crowdsourced spreadsheet that named, shamed, and praised the businesses that were reacting well, and not so well, to the government’s lockdown orders. It should be noted that the comments are alleged and not verified, as many comments came from workers. It’s also now outdated – the likes of H&M were shamed for keeping stores open but quickly closed, for example.
Nevertheless, it’s not hard to do your own research and find out the brands that have thrived and those that have had to up their brand reputation this year.
Which companies have succeeded, and which have learned a lot of lessons in 2020?
Winner: Burger King
The fast-food giant’s handling has been my personal favourite of 2020, and not just because I love their chilli cheese bites.
We’re all trying hard to help support small businesses this year, and that includes the Whopper company. Burger King took the difficult decision to temporarily close all 517 of its restaurants across the UK and Northern Ireland, until it came up with a plan to safely re-open for delivery and takeaway. However it’s not its swift closure that led to it winning my list of 2020’s top brands – it’s the advertising.
Helping out smaller businesses is something that we’ve all tried to do this year, and the conglomerates often get shamed for dominating the food and drink industry. So in November when the second lockdown was announced, Burger King shocked consumers when it told its customers to order from McDonald’s – it’s arch-nemesis and rival. And recently, before Christmas, it’s promoted independent restaurants in tier 3, naming various eateries that customers might not have heard of.
This is a fantastic way of using your power, and it’s hardly going to go against Burger King – brand awareness, anyone?
Loser: Sports Direct
It’s hard for one business to get all the domination in the press, but Sports Direct managed it back in March. It initially announced that it would remain open during March’s first national lockdown, claiming it was an essential store – despite selling online.
When it eventually did close thanks to mounting pressure from staff and customers, it then hiked up the prices of items on its website by almost double. This led company boss Mike Ashley to apologise for the actions after he was called out by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove.
Winner: Royal Mail
In what has been a crazy year for the postal service, we must praise the Royal Mail for continuing on as normal (as possible) during 2020.
But one of the other notable events of the year was the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, which happened a few months before Black History Month. When October rolled around, four Royal Mail postboxes were painted black to honour black Britons, such as Lenny Henry and footballer Walter Tull, who was also the first black Army officer to command troops in a regular unit.
Some brands have struggled with their Black Lives Matter messaging, but we really liked the Royal Mail’s touch.
From the cyber skills retraining programme which was advertised with the infamous ‘Fatima’ advert which caused hundreds of memes in reaction, to the row and subsequent U-turn over A-level grades in August, the communications strategy from the UK Government has, at oftentimes, felt very tone-deaf.
The beginning of the pandemic started out with the simple, and easy to follow ‘Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ message. But then, it started to get complicated. So many times this year, the Government has been criticised for unclear messaging – ‘do go out, but don’t go out’ – anyone? If anything, this is a great lesson for all of us in the importance of clear messaging.
Winner: Marcus Rashford
Ending the year as Marcus Rashford, MBE, the 23-year old Manchester United footballer has had quite the year. At the beginning of 2020, he set out to tackle food poverty for school children, using Twitter as his prime method of communication. And boy, did it work – his open letter to MPs on June 15th asking MPs to reinstate the food voucher scheme over the Summer holiday period worked.
His down-to-earth messages, and retweeting all of the small businesses helping to feed children this October half term have seen him become the poster man for ending poverty in children, ending the year with the Expert Panel Special Award at the Sports Personality of the Year.
Loser: Oh Polly
Oh, Polly. Back in April, the fashion company launched a competition for frontline workers. However one of the prizes was the chance to join a “virtual cocktail party” wearing one of her new outfits.
The winner was working a 12-hour shift that day, so couldn’t attend the party. When she asked if she could have the dress anyway, as per her reward, she was told by Oh Polly: “Unfortunately the prize was joining our party, so sorry you are unable to join us babe and we do hope you are able to join us at further competitions.”
Unsurprisingly, Oh Polly apologised for the misunderstanding, after the tweet complaining about the competition went viral on Twitter, with more than 50,000 likes. The lesson? Giveaways for key workers are a great idea, but make sure they can at least accept the prize!
It seems odd for me to include a company which posted £8.1million in losses in September, due to the pandemic. Yet, Brewdog has had a corker of a marketing year. It closed all of its pubs in March, but instead of using its distilleries to sit empty, it reduced beer production in order to use this area to produce free hand sanitiser for local hospitals and charities.
It also created a new beer – aptly named Lockdown lager, and hosted a series of ‘virtual pubs’ for people to log in for online tasting sessions and pub quizzes, to get a sense of the pub life from their living room. And when the company did have to make four percent of its staff redundant, the two co-founders forgoed their entire salary for 2020, and the COO took a 50% pay cut to pay for the voluntary redundancy process.
Loser: Philip Green
Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia empire was forced to apologise back in September, after it made a decision to pay 300 people who were cut from their jobs at the Head Office just half of their notice pay. Of course, when the decision made its way to the press after the Unite union threatened legal action, the company said that it got the decision wrong and the board amended the policy to ensure that all employees receive their full pay.
Later on this year Arcadia fell into administration, raising concern that some members face losing at least 10% of future pension payouts following the news. What does this have to do with communications? Well, as one retail analyst said last year, “there’s been an avalanche of bad publicity surrounding Green,” for years, with him being accused of harassment and racial abuse in a report in The Telegraph. These claims began to tarnish the brand, which COVID-19 inevitably made worse.
Promise, we’re not biased… but Google established a COVID-19 fund that enabled its temporary staff and vendors to take paid sick leave if they so needed to back in March.
In recognition of SMEs struggling too, the company gave its small and medium-sized businesses a total of 340million dollars in ad credits, until the end of 2020, which can be used towards future ad spend.
We won’t mention the Great Google Blackout of December 14th…
It’s been a crazy year, and even for those that failed at communication at times, it’s always a learning curve. I’m of the strong opinion that a failure is only a bad thing if you repeat the same failure twice, Who knows what 2021 has in store for us, but hopefully, brands have learned that simple, clear communication is key. This year more than ever, we appreciate the brands that treat their people well, because how they treat their health can have a ripple effect on the rest of the public. And remember, if you treat your employees badly, it’s only a matter of hours before it gets out to the press.