The Nepean Rep Report – Leftover Fruitcakes

Merriment and good will are out, consumer animosity is in. The close of 2022 has shown that the public at large are ready and eager to identify any and all perceived slights. Fortunately for them, they have not had to dig too deep to find opportunity. The final few weeks of the year provided ample space to exercise their zeal, with businesses and politicians alike falling foul of the new, emerging rules of engagement.

All bark, no bite

The winter World Cup provided an unfamiliar twist on the festive season, but more than anything else, it demonstrated that people today demand that businesses and individuals prove that they are on their side. On and off the pitch, the British public proved themselves willing and able to call out perceived hypocrisy, with the controversy surrounding Qatar’s hosting providing a field of play that would inevitability lead to clashes.

And we did not have to wait long. Before a ball had even been kicked, it was not going to pass unnoticed that, just a short time after Pride Month, countless brands proved willing to sponsor an event hosted in a country where homosexuality is illegal. With businesses including Adidas, Coca Cola and McDonald’s facing claims of ‘pinkwashing’ and inauthenticity.

With sponsorship deals in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and often extending across multiple tournaments, it was always unlikely that sponsors would back up their tall values-claims with meaningful action. Nonetheless, the fact that such incongruity was so quickly called out is a demonstration of the increased demand for consistency and across a business’ Corporate Body Language.

The above brands, however, did at least commit to quite understated, traditional marketing campaigns. The same cannot be said for BrewDog – their so-called ‘anti-sponsorship’ campaign can still be seen on their website, with them taking a (fairly non-controversial) stand against ‘corruption’, ‘abuse’ and (slightly bolder) ‘death’. All at the same time they signed a deal to distribute beers throughout the country.

Mete out to help out

We’ve not heard a huge amount from Rishi in his first weeks and months – a wise move after such an extensive period of Tory in-fighting and disruption – he did decide to briefly break cover over the Christmas break, helpfully doling out advice, insight and sausages at a soup kitchen. Television cameras were still rolling as he asked Dean, a homeless man, if he worked in business, whilst going on to talk about his own background in finance.

Perhaps Rishi was showing an astute understanding of in-work poverty, or (as some have argued) his was a conversational approach free from assumption or prejudice. There is something to be said for the second point, though that must surely be outweighed by the context – a photo-opportunity aimed at highlighting his government’s pledge to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.

Unfortunately, as we move deeper into a cost-of-living crisis, Rishi comments came across as disconnected from economic reality and a failure of empathy. Throw in his privileged background, and the recent criticism of his wife’s non-domicile status, and you’ll find a veritable festive fruitcake of misjudgement.

At a time when so many are struggling, relatability is the order of the day. During the pandemic, people wanted to see people and businesses going above and beyond; today, people just want to take comfort in the idea that we’re all in this together, that nobody is benefiting at the expense of others, and that those with power understand and are attempting to ease the burden.

Eight is mate

For an example of how better to manage a business’ reputation at a time like this, British energy companies might be the last place you’d expect to look. In contrast to their Irish counterparts – opting to forego profits in order to ease the burden on households – British energy companies have voiced displeasure over the introduction of a windfall tax, despite some bosses previously encouraging the move.

So, it comes as a welcome surprise, then, to see Octopus Energy making some small effort to address consumer needs this winter. Writing to The Telegraph’s Consumer Champion, one customer recounted the support she received after her husband returned home following his terminal cancer diagnosis: being moved to a cheaper tariff, given additional credit, receiving electric blanket and even sent a box of flowers.

As consumers struggle with rising costs, customer service has become more important than ever. The pandemic demonstrated that people expect a convenient and individual experience when interacting with businesses. Today, that has not changed, even though the demands – for support and advice – are radically different.

Delivering on these expectations at a time like the present will be rewarded well after we emerge from the current crisis. Failing to engage with customers on their own terms, however, is equally likely to be recalled in easier times. For customer-facing businesses, actioned-empathy is key to reputational security in 2023.


Luke Roberts