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GUEST COMMENT The new role retail brands have to play in today’s world

The current coronavirus pandemic continues to spread its tentacles far and wide, affecting every business, every sector, every industry in every market. Each morning, we wake to find a totally different scenario with this unprecedented situation. In no other sector is this felt more than in retail – Covid-19 is forcing the reinvention of retail business as we know it. 

Many of our leading brands have already pivoted to support pandemic initiatives. Amazon has announced that it will be using its delivery and logistics services to support the NHS, Dyson has shifted its vacuum manufacturing to begin developing ventilators for the NHS, and BrewDog has transformed its distillery to develop hand sanitisers in an effort to help with the shortage in the UK. 

This is because the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a new scenario where those brands that can are making an impact. We have seen how many retailers have been able to act fast – in some situations, faster than our leaders and governments – to respond to the emergency situations we currently face. This has forever changed the role of all brands, but retail in particular. As we emerge from this pandemic in a ’survival of the fittest’ manner, retail brands will need to be more socially relevant and responsible than ever before, with mounting pressure on their products and services to fulfill more crucial needs within the wider community.

Clever brands have begun to lean on altruistic ways of helping those affected by the pandemic, shifting their core business models and customer engagement strategies to offer services with more human touch and real-life credibility that are embedded in the social fabric of our everyday working lives today. These pivots are not just clever but business critical for today’s retail brands, as they also offer a way to engage and connect with their customers in a different way, which is going to prove crucial to moving forward in the wake of the pandemic.

Brands have for years been trying to better engage with their consumers – is now finally the time we see this come to fruition, in a socially relevant way? As the entire world goes ‘remote’, we can see the brands embracing this succeeding. Naked Wines has forecast an increase of £200 million in its annual 2020 revenues, which the online retail company attributes purely to the coronavirus lockdown and higher levels of demand. 

In addition, new data from IMRG showed online UK retail sales grew by 22% during the first week of April as compared with the same timeframe in 2019. These figures paint a pretty picture for online retail, with sectors such as beauty, electronics and grocery seeing significant growth. 

In fact, when we collate our own data at MainAd to get a better understanding of how retail brands are coping with this pandemic, we can see a similar pattern with retailers who have continued to proactively market their products and services and those sectors that have seen significant growth in sales. For example, most digital marketing campaigns remain active – we show that only 19% of our current clients who were active in January paused marketing campaigns during March and April and 40.2% of our active clients overall demonstrated increased sales between the first week of February and the first week of April. 

The world has changed overnight, and it is highly likely that we won’t return to business as usual, at least not as we once knew it. As consumers, we have changed the way in which we gather information, as well as our purchasing patterns and how we consume and buy products and services. What’s more, our attitudes towards today’s leading brands began to change before the pandemic, a trend that will only continue to gain traction as we navigate this uncertain time. 

Whereas previous shopping behaviour may have emphasised price, product and place – in light of today’s crisis, this is no longer the case. The overriding, number one factor for consumers today is trust. Earlier this year, Morning Consult conducted a survey that found that Americans trust leading brands such as Amazon and Google more than the Police and Government. In the UK, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that the British public continue to look to business to support gaps and shortcomings within the government, with more than three in four believing that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to act. 

With brick and mortar shops closed for the foreseeable future, retail brands need to shift their entire focus on providing shoppers with trusted, reliable, consistent and transparent communications and services. Consumer trust is undoubtedly hard to earn and can be lost in the blink of an eye; but, those brands that get this right, that live up to the role of the ‘trusted brand’ will be the ones to come out the other side of Covid-19 stronger and wiser. Transparent supply chains, quality products and services, consistent communication, and safety assurance processes will be critical to gaining this trust – but, arguably more important, so will genuine engagement in their wider communities. 

Michele Marzan is chief strategy officer at MainAd

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