Now is the time to put people first

Brands and businesses need to step up and deliver real support and empathy for both employees and customers to navigate the global coronavirus pandemic.

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First published in BITE

“These are unprecedented times”. Four words that have been uttered by everyone from political leaders to sports journalists to medical experts and industry leaders.

No one could have predicted the sheer scale and impact that this global pandemic is having across the world. Turning our lives upside down - I’m currently writing this whilst trying to juggle work whilst home-schooling two kids. Covid-19 has changed almost every aspect of our lives, from the way we interact with each other to how we work together and how we live our lives. This seismic change in human behaviour will of course have an enormous impact on brands and people’s relationships with them. And for once, this assertion isn’t marketing industry hyperbole for the sake of attention, clicks, views and shares.

Navigating the new normal 

We have woken-up to a different world and over the last few weeks we’ve seen brands respond to this change in different ways. 

Earlier this week, Sports Direct were still refusing to shut their doors to the public, claiming what they sell is “essential”, putting their own staff and customers at needless risk of life. Or indeed Wetherspoons’ owner, Tim Martin, refusing to pay his 40,000 members of staff until he receives a Government loan.

Brands stepping up 

But there have been some hugely positive stories of brands taking action for the better. Prior to Government intervention, James Timpson the CEO of Timpson, shut all his shops and announced that he would be keeping every single member of staff on full pay until further notice. Then there were the brands that made the effort to recognise the hard work of our frontline staff like Pret offering free hot drinks to NHS staff. LVMH of course converted their perfume factories in France to manufacture hand sanitiser gel for French hospitals and Audible cancelled all their subscription charges for kids’ books for as long as schools remain shut, giving parents some much needed respite in the madness.

Whether it’s standing by your staff, supporting frontline key workers or helping ease the pressure on parents, the one thing these examples all have in common are three words. Putting. People. First.

This seismic change in human behaviour will of course have an enormous impact on brands and people’s relationships with them.
Gen Kobayashi

Putting purpose into action 

For years now, brands have been trying to find their “purpose”, believing that if a company or product can communicate a “higher order” benefit to society, it stands a greater chance of it being positively perceived and more frequently bought. But this has more often than not been empty declarations of interchangeable corporate values stuck together like fridge magnet poetry. Telling people that your toaster is an opportunity for you to “evoke a reaction and create a new identity” (this isn’t a joke) isn’t putting people first.

Putting people first means brands demonstrably prioritising people over everything else.

Reaching people where they are 

Putting people first means putting the needs of the people who buy your product first - using the word “consumer” in times like this feels wrong. Times will be tough and money tight for many; brands should be thinking about how they can actively help people, not sell to people. Google released their home schooling platform last week, ‘Teach from Home’, giving teachers access to tools, support and advice on remote working. This is a brand that’s putting people first.

This also means brands and agencies putting employees first, respecting flexible working and working from home. This crisis has forced us all to “WFH” but hopefully it has simultaneously forced management to see that it is possible to be productive without having to be in the same room. I won’t have been the only working parent to have learned how important flexible working is when you’re having to home school your kids over the last few weeks. We need more support for amazing initiatives, like the APG’s, #RightToDisconnect , which offer a set of founding principles for us all to “be more human” at work. This is putting people first.

This means putting the planet first. As my old colleague George Prest has recently championed the notion of ‘Planet Centric Design’ and I think he’s right. We need to place individual need within the wider planetary context, forcing ourselves to ask fundamental questions in how we operate when it comes to impact on the world we live in. This is putting people first.

Let’s use this as an opportunity to make demonstrable changes to society for the better.
Gen Kobayashi

Putting people before profit is a zero-sum game

Make no mistake, this crisis is of a scale that none of us have ever experienced first-hand. I genuinely believe that future generations will be writing about this period of time in GCSE papers. Like Gerald Ratner’s infamous public gaff that led to the demise of his jewellery empire in the 90’s, I believe the public won’t look back kindly on those brands that have left people down in their time of need. We could see the “Ratner Effect” go into overdrive in the coming months for brands that don’t seek to put people before profit.

This is why I hope we truly learn from this as an industry.

Let’s not revert back to the same, tired tactics to garner branded attention. Let’s go beyond modifying logos and creating scam ads for award entries.

Instead, let’s use this as an opportunity to make demonstrable changes to society for the better. Let’s use this as an opportunity to finally deliver on the rhetoric of a “higher purpose” with transformational ideas that can change the way brands service the needs of people in the future. Now, more than ever, we need to go beyond words and focus on positive brand actions that Put People First.


ENGINE is a Future company. We see the world as divided into those who are disrupting and those who are being disrupted. In the connected age technology is changing the relationship between brands and consumers; the ubiquity of mobile devices, always on connectivity, and direct access to brands and their products, services, and support has redefined what we expect and how we want to engage with them. So we’ve built a company to help both sides of the divide. We are a full stack consultancy, technology, insight, data, brand and experience, and advertising and communications company.

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