What can brands learn from South Africa during the pandemic?

What can brands learn from South Africa during the pandemic?

By Fiona Jack

Community seems to be the buzz word now we are all confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, without our usual routine of commuting, picking up our coffee en route, catching up with friends and colleagues over a drink or dinner or going to the gym.  Communities seem to have risen to the challenge, with our regular shout out for key workers, neighbours running errands for those who can’t get out, people checking up on those who live alone.  It seems that when the chips are down, the power of relationships and neighbourhood takes on a new importance.

They’ve always known about this in South Africa, through their concept of “Ubuntu”. In a nutshell, it means: “I am, because we are…”  Steve Biko, political activist who died for his beliefs, wrote in 1970: “We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world made by Africa will be in the field of human relationships…. The great gift still has to come from Africa… giving the world a more human face.”

What if the legacy of the pandemic that’s levelled us all, across the first and third worlds could be something like Ubuntu?  Brands have been talking about caring for consumers, communities and the environment for years and now it’s time to put their money where their mouth is.  Local businesses, perhaps lighter on their feet, have been quick to respond. My local deli has teamed up with the (now closed as not essential) bookshop to deliver not only a selection of cheese and charcuterie but also your next good read. Pret a Manger has closed its stores and is operating on a take- away basis only and offering free hot drinks and a 50% discount for NHS workers. Morrisons has introduced guarantees on sick pay for staff who are both ill and self-isolating; the retailer has also committed to pay small suppliers faster to relieve the pressure on SMEs; Cabify have been offering free rides to medical workers in Madrid; Louis Vuitton has repurposed its workshops in Paris to create not smart bags but alternative non-surgical masks. All great initiatives that consumers will remember.

What about brands that miss the mark? I’ll be removing my custom from the local shop that charged me 3 times the price for half a dozen eggs, when they’d been scarce for several weeks; there’s been a public outcry at Virgin Atlantic’s seemingly double standards, requiring their staff to take 2 months unpaid leave, against their self-styled mantra of the “fun, friendly, fabulous choice that made travel attainable for everyone”.  Blatant profiteering or looking uncaring will damage the health of a brand in the short and long term as consumers vote with their feet.

In the economic slump that is surely heading our way, it remains to be seen which brands will survive, and which will sink without trace. In collaboration with our partners Beyond Research in Milan, we’re putting together our views on the likely outcome across a number of countries, which will be available shortly.  If you’d like a copy, please get in touch: fjack@greenlightresearch.com  In the meantime, let’s remember the ideas that underpin Ubuntu: what do we have in common? How best can we work together to ensure everyone’s needs are met?

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