A time for brand

Andy - 26 th March 2020

As the country embarks on a minimum 3-week lockdown, one of the loudest topics on social media has been the treatment of staff by the many companies who’ve been forced to make difficult decisions in light of the current situation.

Unsurprisingly, a number of businesses have made headlines for all of the wrong reasons. Britannia hotels terminated the contracts of some staff immediately, effectively making them homeless, as they were resident at their hotels. Mike Ashley once again fought against the moral compass of the country by insisting that his Sports Direct shops were essential and would stay open for as long as possible.

But perhaps the most outraging was Tim Martin’s incredible video in which he refused to pay staff and told them to get a job at Tesco until he receives his cash for their imminent furlough. The backlash was so vehement that he finally backed down last night, and agreed to pay out his staff for the March shifts they’ve completed

Whilst there can be no question that many of these actions are deplorable, they’re all perfectly on-brand. Britannia Hotels have come bottom of the Which hotels report for years, and have an overt disregard for the well being of their staff and their customers. Sports Direct are driven primarily by the desire for profit, and Wetherspoons brand is explicitly about price – and they do all they can to keep that price as low as possible, even if that means treating their people appallingly.

What’s more surprising in all of this is that a number of businesses who from the outside appear to be driven by a strong and moral brand have actually behaved in a way that suggests that brand is simply superficial; as we often say, the insides always leak out.

Virgin Atlantic

Whenever we begin a workshop by asking participants for an example of a strong, aligned brand, Virgin always pop up. Well, they did until now. Virgin Atlantic’s decision to force staff to take 8 weeks of unpaid leave, albeit spread across 6 month’s salary, has been met with a mixture of support from some in the airline industry, to horror from MPs, who struggle to calibrate Branson’s personal wealth of over £3bn versus the cost of covering a portion of his 40,000 staff’s wages. Virgin state that they “don’t want to just play the game they want to change it for good”, but in this situation it feels like they’re behaving more like their arch enemy BA than Virgin themselves.


As a bit of a book worm I’ve always loved Waterstone’s. However, their treatment of their incredible staff – who make the brand – is hard to digest. Internal memos leaked by staff imply that the bookshop was desperate to stay open as long as possible as sales were booming, despite staff working in unsafe conditions – no hand sanitiser, gloves or facemasks – during their busiest of times. Waterstones is a brand built on community, with staff recommendations and interaction a central part of what makes their customer experience so special. Acting like a supermarket or the brand that almost killed them, Amazon, feels like a serious misalignment.

Whilst some brands do seem to have been getting it wrong, it’s heart-warming to hear about those businesses who’ve looked at what drives them, and acted in a way that’s true to their brand, and does the right thing.

From Lush’s immediate decision to open up their shops for passers-by to wash their hands... to Pret’s free drinks for NHS workers, to Brewdog’s production of hand sanitiser to Dishoom’s take away service continuing to feed those in need, there are, thankfully, as many examples of brands whose first commitment has been to do the right thing, as those whose only commitment has been to maximise profits.

Andy is a Director at Brand Vista, with over 15 years experience in advertising and innovation consultancies. He’s happiest when operationalising brands, creating ideas that excite staff, delight customers and bring the brand to life throughout the customer experience. 
Find out more about Andy