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A knockout blow for the high street?

01 December 2020

By Henry Taylor

Readers who have had their TV on at some point in the last month may have noticed champion boxer and (apparently) local man about town Anthony Joshua doing the rounds in a series of ads for Google, encouraging viewers to leave Google reviews of their favourite local businesses. The ads suggest that the reviews are crucial to support small businesses through the recovery from Covid-19.

The Google campaign may be slightly more bearable than the variously rehashed ‘now more than ever, buy our products’ ads that have been running constantly since March, but it nevertheless highlights the communications challenge for large businesses that have done well out of the crisis while thousands of small companies are struggling to stay afloat.

Through the pandemic, global tech businesses have had to strike a sensitive balance between self-promotion and support for those who are struggling, especially when their success has come at the expense of small businesses. However, finding the right balance has proved to be challenging for some of the world’s largest companies.

The clearest example of this is Amazon, which has seen a 68% increase in its share price this year and its highest ever profits while local businesses have been forced to close, further accelerating the decline of the high street. Unsurprisingly, questions have been raised over whether Amazon’s success is good for society, with a recent poll showing that 69% of Britons believe the company is now too powerful. 

In response to the company’s retail domination during the pandemic, several self-styled alternatives have emerged, offering online platforms for everything from independent bookshops to local fashion designers that promise the same slick service without damaging local businesses.

Amazon has made several attempts to demonstrate sympathy for smaller businesses during the crisis, including donations to a charity initiative to provide grants to SMEs hit hard by the pandemic. However, when much of Amazon’s success has come from its ability to undercut small businesses with its economies of scale and ubiquity, it remains difficult for the company to communicate that it really values the survival of these businesses.

Other tech giants have taken similar actions – Apple recently announced a cut to its App Store fees for small developers in response to criticism over its share of earnings on the platform. However, this also risks coming across as an empty gesture when the vast majority of Apple’s revenue through the App Store comes from larger publishers – including Amazon. 

In some ways, Google is in a stronger position than both of these rivals – while it clearly benefits from any increased web traffic and the personal data it can collect from those who leave reviews, it relies less on retail than its competitors, so its message feels more meaningful and less self-serving.

The pandemic has fundamentally altered the way businesses go about their corporate social responsibility. As the pandemic continues, it remains crucial that businesses are seen to be making a meaningful contribution to society. Failing to do so risks accusations of hypocrisy and opportunism as well as a broader shift in whether global tech companies are seen as a genuine force for good.