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Re-open for business (Pexels)

When non-essential shops re-open in the United Kingdom customers are likely to engage with socially responsible brands that have shown leadership in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Purpose Pulse 2020

On Sunday evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to re-open non-essential shops on June 15, much to the relief of many business leaders in charge of organisations large and small. The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered shops and triggered what Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week labelled a recession “the likes of which we haven’t seen”. And even when businesses do open again, there are no guarantees that consumers will flock to their shops. 

A new survey, published on Monday, though, suggests that those brands that have acted in a socially responsible way during the COVID-19 crisis stand the best chance of attracting customers. The Purpose Pulse 2020, produced in collaboration by Purpose Union, the Brand & Reputation Collective (BRC) and Root Cause suggests these intentions reflect a widespread belief among a large majority of the general public (77 per cent) that organisations have a broader social purpose – beyond selling their products and services – to help in the fight against coronavirus. 

For the moment, three-quarters of consumer (75 per cent) believe companies are responding positively. However, the findings also show that some brands are likely to face reputational as well as economic challenges when they re-open their doors for business.


Indeed, the research indicates that over half of us (51 per cent) will boycott brands that failed to respond well when coronavirus hit Britain and the country was locked down, on March 23. Furthermore, a majority (63 per cent) said they would prefer a product or service from a COVID-19 “hero” brand. And, most tellingly, almost four in 10 people (38 per cent) would be willing to pay more. Of those willing to pay more, 43 per cent say they would be willing to pay 5-9 per cent extra. Another 8 per cent say they would be willing to pay as much as 10 per cent or more extra. 

“The COVID-19 emergency is accelerating changes that were already happening,” says Barry Johnston, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Purpose Union. “Consumers have increasingly high expectations that companies will deliver on a wider social purpose, beyond a single-minded pursuit of profit at all costs. The economic recovery from the coronavirus is going to be tough. It’s going to be even tougher for brands that have failed this test.”

The report highlights that it is no longer enough for a company to cut a generous cheque to be thought of as socially responsible – consumers can see right through. Less than half of respondents (47 per cent) thought it was important or very important for companies to donate money to charities. Instead, they want to see responsible business practices such as treating their staff fairly (87 per cent), finding safe ways to provide their goods and services (84 per cent), adapting their facilities to support the fight against COVID-19 (76 per cent), or allowing their employees to work from home for as long as necessary (74 per cent). 


Mr Johnston continues: “Cheque-book philanthropy is no longer good enough. Consumers want to see companies think about their wider impact on society, and how their day-to-day operations are helping or hurting society. It’s clear, for example, how businesses have treated their staff during the COVID-19 crisis will be a litmus test for their corporate reputation for years to come.”

Charline Merieau, Co-Founder of Root Cause, agrees. “Brands that are perceived as acting in a socially responsible way during the COVID-19 crisis are more likely to benefit from customer goodwill in the long run,” she says. “The results present yet another opportunity for companies to simultaneously drive social and environmental change as well as business performance.”

When asked to name a business that behaved responsibly, 50 per cent of respondents were able to provide an example, and supermarket brands scored highly. When prompted to list a company responding to the coronavirus pandemic in an irresponsible way many more brands were named, though Sports Direct, Virgin and Weatherspoons all featured on multiple occasions. 

Interestingly, younger consumers – Millennials (22 per cent) and members of Generation Z (26 per cent) – are especially likely, according to the research, to say they have heard or read about negative social behaviour on the part of companies or brands.

Phil Riggins, Founder of the BRC, adds: “It’s clear that UK consumers are paying attention to how brands act and will reward or punish them accordingly. They expect businesses to do their share to get the country running again, whether that’s working in new COVID-19 friendly ways, letting people work from home as long as they like, or sharing more of the cost of the furlough.”

Ahead of the shutters being lifted for non-essential shops in the UK, business leaders would do well to remind consumers how they have displayed their leadership in crisis.