How the pandemic fuelled desire for responsible brands

How the pandemic fuelled desire for responsible brands

Written by Amelia Banks

Brand responsibility. As far as marketing phrases go, it’s not the most original. After brand mission, brand values, brand purpose and brand drive, the ‘brand + abstract noun’ formula feels a little overdone. And that’s before we consider corporate social responsibility, which sounds like brand responsibility, but wearing a Paul Smith suit. 

So why is brand responsibility important? What actually separates it from CSR? Corporate social responsibility has done much to redeem big business. But in terms of hierarchy, it’s still seen as a cute supporting act to a company’s main concern. At its best, CSR is fossil fuel divestment and a promise to recycle its own goods. At its worst, it’s greenwashing and fiscal hypocrisy. (Think multinationals who brag about charitable giving while avoiding a large tax bill).

Brand responsibility, when done right, is baked into the cake. It’s a profit-regardless   commitment to do what’s best for customers, staff and planet. Some companies were doing this long before the pandemic (Patagonia’s 2013 ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ advert was an honourable own goal against consumerism). Others - fuelled by lack of regulation and a public appetite for cheap, fast goods - were let off the hook. Sure, the thinking went, we haven’t quite cracked the living wage thing yet. But look at this 3 for 2 sale.  



Patagonia’s 2013 Don’t Buy this Jacket advert 
Image credit to Tim Nudd on Adweek 

Then along came lockdown. For the first time ever, we experienced a world event so critical that business-as-usual felt trite. Initially, this resulted in some awkwardness as brands grasped for the right tone. There were FLASH SALE Tweets that offered 50% off loungewear during ‘this difficult time’. A well-meaning stationery company whose email advised that lockdown was the ideal opportunity to ‘start journaling’. Much of it felt crass and insincere. 

“For every £1 spent with local businesses, an extra 56p is returned to the local economy.”  

Deliveroo were one of the first big names to make positive action. Their ‘no contact’ policy set a new gold standard, allowing them to feed isolating customers while protecting staff. Also early on, Waterstones announced that shielding customers would get books delivered free-of-charge. ‘Free’, or at least, ‘reduced’, generally became the mode du jour. With schools shut, Audible gifted a selection of narrated children’s books. Headspace promised a year’s free subscription to anyone who’d lost their job. Hero discounts - 25% most places; 50% in Pret a Manger – abounded for NHS staff. On a large scale, Dyson and Brew Dog manufactured ventilators and ‘Punk’ hand-sanitiser. This was brand responsibility’s moment. The conversation had finally turned from: how can we sell? to: how can we help? 

Brewdog Hand Sanitizer
Brew Dog used their industrial clout to manufacture hand sanitiser for NHS staff
Image credit to Rose Stokes on Raconteur


But a year on, it’s actually consumers, not the companies, whose behaviour has changed most. Despite the choice afforded by the internet, our online shopping choices have been surprisingly municipal. A 2020 survey by Accenture reported 60% of consumers making more environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ethical purchases than before. Fairtrade food sales have risen 14%. Electric car sales have surged. (an online retailer supporting brick-and-mortar, indie bookshops) made £415,000 within its opening week. Although some small businesses have sadly closed, many have found a new fanbase via subscription parcels and Zoom events. The importance of people shopping this way can’t be overstated. For every £1 spent with local businesses, an extra 56p is returned to the local economy. 

This trend in consumption has been a welcome, but perhaps inevitable, shift. While we’re ‘all in this’ pandemic together, some are certainly more ‘in it’ than others, and this inequality has caused us to reflect. By now, everyone not on the front line has heard the stories. We’ve seen doctors with red google marks from PPE. Posties doing double the work at double their distance from colleagues. For white-collar workers, told to lock-in, stay safe, and enjoy The Queen’s Gambit, this privilege had led to frustration. They can’t help in person. However, they can – and have – helped by redirecting their pound.

Shopping Local

The thirst for ethical shopping is expected to last. (60% of shoppers intend to continue buying local). This could be due to education. Free of commuting and socialising demands, people have had time to read, watch, think and reflect. We’ve seen a surge in activism around BLM and child food poverty. We’ve also seen smaller, domestic rebukes to the status quo. People are growing their own vegetables. Wasting less food. Learning to sew. As governments plan for recovery, three in four people want environmental protection to come first. 

Which brings me to the zenith of brand responsibility: a commitment to tell the truth. If customers want to spend better, they need the private sector’s support. Responsible brands should be as transparent about failures as they are PR wins. If a company greenwashes or buries their ‘plans’ to address modern slavery within size 6 font, they’re reneging on this deal. 

In terms of future consumption habits, there’s an argument for buying less. We know that landfills are at capacity. That our romance with single-use plastics will have toxic repercussions for generations to come. But we also need to shop. Jeans rip. Coffee runs out. Notebooks are filled with ideas. We’ll have to replace these items. And when we exit the pandemic, the brands who enable us to do so with a green conscience will be the ones who thrive.