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Virgin, Sports Direct and Wetherspoons among brands to feel the wrath of socially-conscious UK consumers


Purpose Pulse survey highlights the lasting effect of inconsiderate actions from brands during coronavirus lockdown.

2nd Jun 2020

Rightly or wrongly, the UK government is currently in the process of easing lockdown measures in relation to the coronavirus crisis, including the reopening of retail outlets as of the 15th June.

And whilst many retailers will welcome the slow creep back towards some semblance of normality, there’s a sting in the tail for those that acted less than scrupulously during the lockdown phase.

According to findings from the 2020 Purpose Pulse, 51% of UK consumers are set to boycott brands that were exposed for failing to act responsibly during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

50% of respondents to the study highlighted specific brands as having failed the public during lockdown, with Sports Direct, Wetherspoons and Virgin all highlighted for acting without consideration for the public.

Millennials (22%) and Generation Z (26%) were the key demographics to have both absorbed negative stories about these brands and to have made decisions to boycott them.

“It’s clear that UK consumers are paying attention to how brands act and will punish them accordingly,” says Phil Riggins, founder of the advisor firm, Brand and Reputation Collective. 

“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.”

Virgin hit the headlines in early April when its airline business, Virgin Atlantic, pleaded for a tax-payers bailout of £500m to protect it during the coronavirus crisis, despite its founder Richard Branson have a reported net worth of £3bn.

Meanwhile, Sports Direct was slammed for initially refusing to close its stores at the start of the lockdown because it deemed sports equipment to be ‘essential’ retail, whilst pub chain Wetherspoons has refused to pay its 4,500+ staff or any of its suppliers since the end of March.

Benefits for the socially responsible

The good news is that brands that have been deemed to act responsibly can expect loyalty from consumers as a result.

63% of respondents to the Purpose Pulse said they would prefer a product or service, and four in ten say they would be willing to pay extra for a product or service, from a business that acted in a socially responsible way during the COVID-19 crisis.

Of those willing to pay more, 43% say they would be willing to pay 5-9% extra, while 39% say they would be willing to pay 1-4% extra. Another 8% say they would be willing to pay as much as 10% or more extra.  

Just Eat, Pret A Manger and Slack are just three of a number of brands that have acted positively during the corona crisis.  

 “The COVID-19 emergency is accelerating changes that were already happening,” says Barry Johnston, co-founder of The 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.

“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 corporate reputation for years to come”.

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