Caught as we are in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, it is difficult to discern how society will change, or not, once the cards have fallen.

But we can say with confidence that a long shadow will be cast over the operating environment of the corporate world.

That is because we have never seen people so attuned to what is happening. Populus tracks the public’s most noticed stories and we are seeing record numbers week after week glued to the latest coronavirus developments in a way that no other event has managed.

In a time like this, businesses must step up to the plate whether they like it or not.

Our latest polling on attitudes towards coronavirus has 85% of the country agreeing that ‘it is now more important than ever that brands support their local communities’. Two thirds (65%) want brands to tell them how they have helped during the crisis.

Familiar organisations are already being judged in the court of public opinion, and shifting attitudes suggest that the public are more responsive that ever to what businesses are or are not doing to support the country in its hour of need. The early introduction of elderly shopping hour by Sainsbury’s, for example, has helped to consolidate its position as the business perceived to be handling the crisis best (64% think it is doing well, up from 48% three weeks ago).

Dyson has boosted its reputation by responding to the Government’s call to design and produce thousands of ventilators for the NHS at short notice. Accordingly, 39% of the public say it is doing well in its virus response, compared with only 3% who say it is doing badly.

Fieldwork:3-5 April, among 2,093 members of the public. Showing selected organisations from a wider list

But organisations seeking to minimise the damage to their balance sheets while taking advantage of workers, customers, or public finances are in the crosshairs.

Sports Direct is one example. Its boss Michael Ashley tried to keep shops open when it was apparent they were ‘non-essential’, thereby putting its workers at risk. This did not go unnoticed: just 6% of the public think Sports Direct is responding well to the coronavirus challenge, compared to a huge 54% who think it is responding badly – far worse than any other organisation we tested.

Coronavirus is magnifying the stories that brands tell about themselves. Those who claim – like Sainsbury’s – to improve people’s lives and contribute to national wellbeing must prove that they mean it. Those who are reinforcing long-held reputations for profiteering and self-interest are putting themselves in a precarious position.

The closest parallel we have is the 2008 financial crisis. Though that was a man-made disaster, the shockwaves were felt for the next decade by the financial institutions which were deemed to have acted selfishly and irresponsibly. On the other hand, the new banking sector disruptors that saw an opportunity to rebuild trust by proving that they care about the public have grown market share quickly.

Because people are paying such close attention to this new crisis, we again find ourselves in a situation where only actions, not words, will matter.

Being able to provide a convincing answer to the question, “what did you do during the war?” is becoming increasingly important. The public will remember the saints and the sinners when normal service is resumed and a financial and political reckoning takes place.

When the government needs to find ways of filling the fiscal holes that were created while digging the country out of the crisis, those businesses that shirked their responsibilities to the public will be the first on the list.


Will Clothier is a Consultant at Populus

Will Clothier

Will is a Senior Consultant at Populus, where he advises corporate and public sector clients on their reputation strategies with key audiences. He leads projects analysing the views of the public, key demographic groups, and senior stakeholders. He works with charities, political organisations, and household names across a range of sectors.