Store closures put reputation management at the forefront of marketing

GWP's Philippe Garneau says treating staff well is vital for long-term brand trust.

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An image posted to Lush’s Instagram page on Sunday announcing the closure of its North American stores, as well as efforts to maintain regular pay for employees.

Over the weekend, many retail brands and companies across Canada, North America and the world shut the doors to their locations in order to help limit social interaction and the spread of COVID-19.

International retailers like Apple, Nike, Lush and Lululemon have closed locations across North America. Cadillac Fairview and Ivanhoe Cambridge have cut back on opening hours for their shopping malls across Canada. Starbucks and Tim Hortons have joined the ranks of QSRs that would be closing their dining rooms, offering orders only through drive-through and take out.

Tims’ announcement, however, came after Canadians expressed outrage that some franchisees (which set their own sick leave policies) had required doctor’s notes from employees in order to take sick leave. Across North America, companies that weren’t covering pay for employees during closures or not offering paid sick leave – from sports teams that had their seasons cancelled to multinational companies like McDonald’s – were called out by consumers online.

Philippe Garneau, president and CCO of GWP Brand Engineering, says managing reputation, especially when it comes to how employees are treated, is going to be important during this time. Brands like Starbucks, Apple, Lululemon and Lush have been front-and-centre explaining that staff will either be be paid salaries or for scheduled shifts, or that efforts are underway to ensure they will be able to do so.

At a time when the ability to market and sell products is limited, maintaining reputation is not only the best way to avoid a brand crisis, it also one of the best forms of marketing available.

“If you don’t have an opportunity right now, because of the nature of your business or category, to actually help my customer, how can you help your brand in the meantime,” he says. “It’s not about profiting from disarray and confusion and anxiety. You are allowed to look at your brand, and look at ways they could be expressed in manners that would put some flesh on the brand for the future, without telling people to ‘spend more on us.’”

Even though government officials in Canada have yet to impose official limits on “non-essential” businesses staying open during the pandemic, Garneau suggests being prudent and proactive about limiting hours or closing doors might be the best choice. This isn’t just because there is the possibility of Canada following the lead of countries like Italy or some U.S. states in terms of a total lockdown, but because of how it looks to the public.

“It is times like these where brands really demonstrate what they are made of and how serious they are about their customers,” he says. “They may have excellent reasons to delay their communications about what they are doing because of unions or contracts and things like that, but it can look like all they cared about was making their money. That may not be the case, and I doubt it is, but it sure looks that way.”

Garneau says money should be set aside for the moment and companies should not assume store closures mean they have nothing to market or build their brand around. They should communicate to employees how it will attempt to utilize expected government funding to cover lost wages, and help employees through it if they need to apply as individuals.

“In other words, don’t throw your hands up and say to your employees, sorry, you knew this all along, it was in your contract,” he says. “It’s not a good time for anybody who is a CEO or a president to punt it to their employees. Whatever they do in terms of a reaction is a brand reaction, so each one of them can look back on how it managed everything in a holistic manner to the benefit of their employees, first and foremost; second, their clients; and third, their brand. Because, of course, all three are inextricably tied.”

Even if brands have a healthy ecommerce business to make up for store closures, Garneau points out that it is important for brands to recognize if their product represents something consumers need, or if it’s something they’d simply like to have – “people don’t love you for your product, they love your motivations for making the product,” he says, pointing out how making it easier to get groceries might go over better than marketing products like snacks or lingerie. But some companies also have a range of other online touchpoints they could utilize to continue giving consumers what they get from a brand: Goodlife Fitness, which announced the closure of all of its clubs in Canada on Sunday evening, says it is looking for ways to provide more virtual classes to members.