Perspectives: The importance of knowing your brand’s social role

By Mary Winter | 15 December 2020
Mary Winter

Mary Winter, insights director for branding agency Principals, looks at the brands that have won over Australians during this annus horribilis.

This year has put pressure on brand reputations like never before. In a climate of anxiety and economic struggle, some brands stepped up and won the hearts of the people while others failed to grasp the role they played and behave accordingly.

Here in brand land, we have our own opinions about the winners and losers, but the opinion that really matters is that of everyday Australians.

For more than a decade, Principals has been conducting Brand Alpha, a research piece that gauges public sentiment toward brands. We’re gearing it up to do it all over again as we see out the agency’s 25th year, an annus horribilis for many brands.

Given the past 12 months, a key theme is emerging: resilience.

Before diving into a large-scale quantitative research piece, to grasp what consumers believe resilience is and which brands demonstrate the trait, we conducted qualitative research via an online community.

What has become abundantly clear is that in 2020, the real brand heroes are everyday heroes and they share three clear similarities.

Society verses self
According to our qualitative research, the brands that won approval from the people this year were the ones that quickly understood their broader social role in the pandemic.

These brands displayed empathy, placed society before profits and stepped up to help. For this reason, the supermarkets have been held in high regard. Here in Australia, Coles and Woolworths understood they had a responsibility to ensure food security for all including the elderly and people with disabilities. They were seen to quickly offer click-and-collect and special opening hours as well as organising hand sanitiser and protection for staff and shoppers alike.

Likewise, the banks offered to defer mortgage repayments. One of our respondents specifically praised Westpac for proactively calling its customers to see how they were faring and if they needed to take a home loan holiday.

Conversely, other brands with much needed services failed to see the significance of their social role during lockdown and have had their reputations tarnished. Some delivery services, in particular, were called out by the research participants.

People did not expect ‘business as usual’ in 2020. We were all in this together and brands displaying poor community spirit were frowned upon.

Generosity verses greed
Displays of unexpected generosity by brands caught the attention of consumers with many citing telcos and online entertainment brands that offered free data and increased their services for people learning online, working from home or in need of distraction.

And the brands that reached out to help the heroes of the pandemic, in particular the doctors and nurses, did not go unnoticed. McDonald’s provided free coffee to those on the frontline and Linkt gave toll road credits to medical workers.

On the flipside, brands that were seen as taking advantage of the situation by price gouging those in need have taken a reputational hit. Companies that were quick to fire people and simply rationalised their business rather than striving to find another way were criticised, as were companies that reduced staff wages yet expected employees to work the same hours.

Fast adaptation verses inertia
Winning brands did not hang around in the early stages of the pandemic waiting to see what would happen. Consumers were impressed by hospitality businesses that pivoted to offer takeaway and gin distillers that converted to manufacturing hand sanitiser.

But not all brands kept pace with many others ‘dropping their bundle’ and acting as if they were the real victims of the pandemic. This undermined community trust not only because of self-interest, but also a perceived failure of competence.

Overall, what our research shows is that in a time of crisis, it can be the mundane and ‘low involvement’ categories such as supermarkets that emerge as our greatest heroes. The day-to-day essentials have become profoundly valuable.

Brands, regardless of their function in our lives, should not underestimate their significance as powerful players in the community, and how much people depend on them to create change and serve the social good. This is not about arrogance.

It’s a moment of truth for empathy and citizenship.
Our research also clearly demonstrates that in the minds of Australians, a ‘never give up’ attitude is at the heart of resilient characters, human and brand alike.

Strong leaders – and strong brands – see adversity as an opportunity to learn fast, adapt and move on. They do not let themselves be overwhelmed by their circumstances. This is one of the most admired characteristics in our collective psyche.

As we head into the new year, these are important lessons to take on board. We can now see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, but this won’t be the last challenge your brand faces. Learning from this one will ensure you’re prepared to win over consumers well into the future.

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