Comment: Consumers judge brands on how they treat people

Disrespectful redundancy strategies will be remembered, says Digital Drums chief executive Steve Dunne

Picture the scene. You are with a loved one, close friend or business colleague eating in one of your favourite restaurants. The food is excellent and the ambience wonderful.

There’s just one tiny, niggling issue. You notice the manager of the restaurant is treating his staff dreadfully. His behaviour towards his team is appalling and it is all done quite publicly.

And the staff themselves, despite their professionalism in serving you, seem miserable and tense. And there is little doubt what the cause of their misery is: it is the manager.

What would be your reaction to this scene? Would the behaviour of the restaurant management towards their team colour your view of the establishment? Would you be wary of using the restaurant in future? Would you be embarrassed for the management and staff? Would you decide to take your business elsewhere?

These are the types of questions that are going to be increasingly asked of travel brands in the coming weeks and months as the world eases its way back to a form of normality.

One of the first things I was taught as a young marketing apprentice was that in times of crisis a person or brand shows their true colours. Anyone, or any brand, can behave wonderfully when the going is good. But when things get tough, the true colours of that person or brand appear. And those colours are not always the same as the public relations department has been painting.

Key learnings

As the chancellor starts to move the commercial world away from the furlough scheme, and as the economy moves into an inevitable recession, travel businesses will start to resize and reshape to survive.

During the lockdown period, I moderated many webinar and seminar events for various travel industry brands and trade associations. A pet couple of questions of mine for my guests from different corners of the sector were ‘what have been your key learnings from this period?’ and ‘what would you advise someone in the future to be mindful of should a situation like this arise again?’

The answer was universal. Look after your people. It’s not only the moral thing to do, it’s good for business too, they said. It was heartening to hear.
And yet, reading the headlines, one could be excused for thinking this is not a universal sentiment of the travel industry.

Brand damage

Clearly there are some big brands in the travel sector which have not exactly covered themselves in glory recently. And these actions, from a PR and marketing viewpoint, don’t play well to the public.

When widespread media coverage reported on British Airways being described as a “a national disgrace” by MPs because of its perceived behaviour towards employees during the coronavirus crisis, there was severe discomfort expressed by many consumers on social media and in letters to editors.

When Heathrow airport was accused of “brutally ditching” its “loyal and dedicated group of workers” as part of a job cuts strategy, the negativity continued on social media.

And, as more news emerges of job losses in the sector, there can be little doubt travel consumers will be watching carefully. Because consumers judge companies and organisations on how they treat their people. If they treat their staff dreadfully, how can we believe their claims about putting people first?

So, in the difficult days to come, where staff are being asked to make sacrifices – be it wage cuts, revised working conditions or, worse, the loss of jobs – senior management and leaders need to remember one thing: the consumer is watching how employees are being treated by management.

Redundancy and employment strategies implemented aggressively and disrespectfully towards staff don’t play well with the public.

And just as in the restaurant scene, regardless of the wonderful food and good service on offer, the discomfort of seeing the management treating their staff so appallingly may well have you deciding not to eat there again in the future.


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