Which companies have been most successful in pivoting their corporate communications due to COVID-19?

As lockdown is gradually eased in the UK and life slowly begins to return to a semblance of normality (with collective fingers firmly crossed that spikes don’t lead to a second nationwide lockdown), now seems like an opportune moment to look back over the last five months and pick out some of the organisations who successfully adapted their communications strategies to fit the extraordinary circumstances imposed on them by the COVID-19 pandemic.

BrewDog

It may be an obvious choice, but it’s hard to ignore the way BrewDog took the closure of its 100 bars around the world, and the loss of 50 per cent of its export business, in its stride. Instead of bemoaning the situation forced upon it, the company decided to seize the initiative in a way that aligned with its manifesto pledge: “We do things against the grain. We will do what we think is right – and we really don’t care what people think.”

Deprived of its traditional purpose (“to make incredible craft beer”), BrewDog decided to switch its operations completely. Two days before it closed all of its UK bars, the company announced that it would now be producing hand sanitiser instead and donating it to the NHS and healthcare charities.

“We believe businesses should be a force for good,” explained James Watt, BrewDog’s co-founder and boss, and he went on to put his (lack of) money where his mouth was by refusing to take any salary in 2020, along with fellow co-founder Martin Dickie. The firm’s senior team also took pay cuts in order to protect jobs.

BrewDog also then cheekily waded into the furore surrounding Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to County Durham. In a fine example of social media brilliance, the company invited its Twitter followers to christen its latest, limited-edition beer, and the Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA was launched under the strapline: “Short-sighted beer for tall stories”.

It proved too good to resist for Keir Starmer, who popped into one of the brewer’s bars in London to be photographed holding a can. BrewDog were understandably keen to publicise the Labour leader’s endorsement, but careful to point out that proceeds from the IPA had funded 100,000 bottles of sanitiser for front-line workers.

Supermarkets

Supermarkets were faced with a plethora of communication challenges in the early stages of lockdown as they sought to explain the intricacies of the new shopping reality to their customers while reassuring them with a basic message that it was still safe to visit their stores.

Tesco was among the first to launch a campaign promoting its social-distancing measures. On 27 March, it unveiled its “Keeping You Safe” ad to highlight the steps it had taken to protect customers and staff at important points in the shopping process. Featuring real employees, the ad detailed how parking attendants would be marshalling customers as they arrived at stores, and showed that signs displaying social distancing advice and queue markers had been arranged to ensure shoppers remained two metres apart. The campaign also underlined measures such as floor markings and one-way aisles, plus protective screens erected at tills to protect cashiers.

At the same time, supermarkets responded to concerns from shoppers worried about catching the virus by expanding their online services. Tesco upped its delivery slots to 1.2 million in a six-week period, more than doubling capacity. Morrison’s, Asda, Iceland and Waitrose also significantly increased their deliveries, while Sainsbury’s online grocery sales went from 7 per cent to 17 per cent during lockdown.

“Our business has fundamentally changed,” said the supermarket’s new chief executive, Simon Roberts. Alluding to the 25,000 new staff the chain had recruited, he continued: “A number of the decisions we have made have materially increased costs, but meant that we have done the right thing for our customers.”

All of these reputation management efforts have paid off handsomely. A recent survey carried out by IAB UK and YouGov revealed that 79 per cent of those questioned would be likely to favour brands that had acted and communicated well during the COVID-19 pandemic. Three quarters of respondents (75 per cent) said clear and frequent communication was a factor in their choice and close to two thirds (62 per cent) were swayed by the implementation of new safety measures.

The research also listed the brands that consumers felt most impressed by during lockdown. Supermarkets dominated the top 10, with Amazon and Boots the only non-supermarket brands to feature.

Garden centres

Like supermarkets, garden centres were quick to respond to the introduction of the government’s lockdown measures. In early April, the BBC reported that the outlets were providing personalised online shopping services to combat huge potential wastage (millions of plants, shrubs and trees) brought about by social-distancing measures.

Traders took advantage of the digital technology at their disposal to live-stream videos of their premises and give customers advice on orders via FaceTime and email. Chessington Garden Centre promoted its products through Facebook Live and offered a delivery service to fulfil orders received through its website.

As staff broadcast a walking tour through the centre and its goods, they replied to questions left by customers in the comments. The video began by assuring viewers that the centre was doing all it could to stick to government guidelines and make sure people stayed at home, but went on to insist that “what we do want to do is encourage you out into your gardens or outdoor space.”

Lessons from lockdown

Business strategy and communications strategy should be inextricably linked. The winners highlighted above have managed to either find a new role for the business that stayed true to its brand identity or reorganised their operations to respond to huge changes in customer demand, while restricted by measures introduced to fight COVID-19.

But if lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that the companies who have been most successful during this period are the ones who have quickly adapted to a sea change in the business environment and then taken their stakeholders with them on that journey.