How to keep your brand afloat in these turbulent times

I wrote, optimistically, only a week ago about how garden centres might change their retail model to survive. Who said ‘a week is a long time in politics’? The world is a completely different place now. But there are still lots of garden centres working hard to maintain sales through online and home delivery. They’ve put in place some extraordinary measures to protect their staff and customers. Order and pay over the ‘phone, drive to the centre and have your purchases loaded into the boot of the car without even getting out. I applaud their entrepreneurial spirit and determination. So will their customers, even when this is all over.

This week, under the new world order, I’ve been thinking more about garden product suppliers. Being mostly reliant on their garden centre customers, it’s inevitable that the sales and order books have quickly dried up. I know of several who are heroically carrying on in expectation of orders from the dwindling list of retail partners who are continuing to trade.

But I wonder about the best course of action to secure a successful future beyond Coronovirus? How best to protect the business reputation, command customer and consumer respect, and future-proof the brand? And balance this with the fundamental challenge of remaining in business at all!

Check out the mood of the consumer. Reflect on their reactions to decisions from Sports Direct and Dobbies to remain open. Note the overwhelming response to the request for volunteers to support the NHS. It won’t just be about which businesses are still operating once the crisis comes to an end. It will be about how those businesses conducted themselves and what people remember about the brand behaviour.

So, I’ve put together my top ten tips for garden products suppliers navigating their brand through the current crisis. My thoughts on how to avoid a ‘Ratner’ scenario!

No.1 Put the health and welfare of your employees above anything else.

I’m clearly not an expert in the science, so my comments are confined to the general principles I would expect a responsible brand to adopt. The precise detail of how to achieve the objectives is best defined by referring to official government advice.

Surely, the single most critical thing any business brand should do is to protect their employees. Most businesses have already implemented a home-working policy for those employees who can do their job remotely. If you cannot enforce the recommended 2 metre distancing role for those employees that have to be on site to do their job, then you should suspend those areas of the business completely. I would recommend identifying anyone at risk, or anyone who lives with someone at risk, and sending them home immediately. The sick pay or furlough details can be sorted later; what those employees need now is reassurance and immediate safe distancing.

No.2 Appoint a small but dedicated team to manage the Covid-19 crisis in your business.

Good practice tells us to define a crisis management team with representatives from different parts of the business (including junior roles) and then empower them. The crisis management team become dedicated to managing many aspects of the business response to the crisis. Ensuring that a small number of appropriate employees are entirely focused on the crisis means that other parts of the business can get on with their day to day jobs. Employees will also know exactly who to approach with questions or queries. It should really help to instil a sense of normality and prevent the whole business becoming paralysed with speculation and uncertainty.

Be careful with appointing spokespeople. Someone needs to be the mouth piece for the business, the Chief Executive is not necessarily best qualified to convey your brand position and do so in the right tone of voice.

No.3 Communicate clearly what you are doing to protect employees and visitors

Keeping everyone briefed at each stage is critical. I listened to a client debating yesterday if they should tell anyone inside, or outside, their business that one of their employees had been taken ill with suspected Covid-19. I think it is highly irresponsible not to be 100% transparent about what’s happening. Responsible employers will let their teams know if anyone has been taken ill and then follow up with a plan of action to reduce risk to anyone else in the business.

For routine communications with remote employees, there are plenty of online and virtual platforms. Microsoft teams is free for businesses operating Office 365. Google Hangouts is a great alternative add on to Chrome. You can very quickly set up a closed Facebook page. And Whypay allows you to set up conference calls completely free of charge.

Maintain a line of communication with customers, consumers and the general public. Keep your website up to date. Websites that do not currently have any statement about their Coronovirus status or plans now feel very ‘out of step’.

No.4 Develop a business crisis Q&A

Capture all the questions being raised by employees, customers, suppliers and develop a set of agreed company responses. Keep them succinct, honest and to the point. Avoid jargon and commercial or technical language. This document will be constantly changing as the crisis develops so make it dynamic and available to the whole of the crisis management team. Make it clear that anyone responding to questions must stick to the script within the approved Q&A. Invite everyone to add new questions if they arise and promise to provide answers within a reasonable timetable (hours not days).

No.5 Put your best communicators on the ‘phones

A call to your office might be the only touch point with your customers and consumers for a while. With retail outlets closed and most sales agents off the road, one of the main ways people are likely to interact with your brand directly is when they call you.

Staff answering the phone will need to be more sensitive and sympathetic than in normal circumstances. Callers may be under considerable stress, worried about their health and that of their loved ones, inevitably concerned about their business and income.

Make sure they respond to questions about your company’s approach to the crisis using only the agreed answers from your Q&A document.

No.6 Ensure the crisis team is fully briefed on the latest situation so that you can react quickly to changes.

Keep one of your crisis team glued to the government website and daily briefings from the Prime Minister. They can then report back to the team if you need to adjust your policies accordingly.

For up to the minute information and advise on the latest situation as it relates to businesses, check out the CBI Coronovirus hub. You can leave your own questions, anonymously if you prefer, for addressing in the daily webinar. There’s lots of valuable information and the latest situation with regard to the various business support initiatives available.

No.7 Listen to feedback and respond

Put out all the antennae to pick up as much feedback as you can. This means ensuring all your social media feeds are actively monitored 24-7. As with managing your communications on the telephone, make sure your best communicators are detailed to look after LinkedIn, Twitter, FB and Instagram and make sure they stay within your agreed Q&A. New or difficult questions need to get back to the crisis management team instantly so that appropriate responses can be agreed quickly.

No.8 Don’t be afraid to re-deploy staff

I’ve seen several examples of businesses splitting their entire teams into two completely separate shifts. This eases the social distancing pressures and allows employees to spread out to maintain 2 metre separation. Productivity inevitably drops, but as demand is also reduced, this might be a manageable way of keeping a maximum number of employees in their jobs.

If, despite all your efforts, you have parts of the team that are not able or not required to perform their regular jobs, think about how you could redeploy them into support roles. Could you appoint a team to support the business with routine hygiene and social distancing advise and monitoring?

Clearly, the business imperative means there may be tougher decisions to be made in order simply, to survive. But put the option to lay off staff at the bottom of the list. You don’t want to end up being accused of putting profit before compassion as Britannia Hotels did. There’s quite possibly no way back for brands that are perceived to have behaved so selfishly.

No.9 Encourage the rest of employees to focus on business after Coronovirus

The survival of the business depends not only on protecting your brand reputation, but also on how quickly you can return to normal trading once the crisis is over. By deploying a small dedicated team to manage your crisis management, the rest of your team can focus, as far as possible, on business as usual.

This will be reassuring for them and put you in a much better place to pick up where you left off just a few weeks ago. I’ve seen some businesses ‘shelve’ development projects entirely in a bid to save cash – but I think this needs careful balancing with an ability to get back to normal in time for pre-season 2021.

I’m assured that GLEE 2020 is still planned to go ahead – or possibly delayed by a few weeks if necessary. I also understand that if government rules are still in force that prevent large gatherings, then their business insurance will result in a refund to exhibitors. So possibly a good risk at this stage.

If the peak of the crisis is long behind us by September (let’s hope so), GLEE could be your first opportunity for several months to engage properly with customers. Might be a good idea to put a team onto begin planning how you can deliver a great customer experience with a reduced budget and a shortened timeline! Creative thinkers step forward.

No.10 Take this opportunity to do some long term strategic planning

Once you have your crisis team up and running and your plan in place, you may find yourselves with some unexpected time on your hands. With day to day trading subdued, the management teams might find they have much more head space to do some strategic thinking.

This could be a rare opportunity to give the long term future of your brand a thorough review – especially important in view of the fact that the garden market landscape will have radically changed by the time business returns to normal.

Maybe now would be a good time to look at new routes to market, or entry into a new category. It’s just possible that you could find a phoenix from out of this fire.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of your crisis management plan, or you want help with more long term strategic planning to help secure the future of your brand, please get in touch.