Why conscious consumerism can change brand behaviour for the better

By Ben Fitton, Thursday December 17, 2020
5 Minutes

In a year where the marketing holy grail of divining pattern from chaos has been even harder than usual, one trend seems to be staying the course: that of conscious consumerism.

Far from being derailed by macro concerns such as Brexit and Covid-19, conscious consumerism is growing in popularity. The rise of socially conscious movements such as veganism, recycling, upcycling, plastic-free production, gender pay equality – as well as the looming spectre of climate change – show that conscious consumerism will only become more important.

Research agency Walnut’s 2019 report ‘The Rise of Conscious Consumers’ found that 75% of Brits are ‘consciously modifying their behaviour when it comes to consumer items. Plastic, non-recyclable materials, dairy, meat, sugar and even clothes are among those products we are beginning to reconsider our consumption of’, the report says.

Such a widespread move towards conscious consumerism is something brands can’t ignore. Customers are gravitating towards companies that mirror their own desire to have a more positive impact on this planet. Which means conscious consumerism isn’t just a regulatory hurdle for brands to overcome; if they fully – and quickly – embrace it, it’s a genuine competitive advantage.

What is conscious consumerism?

A conscious consumer is one who seeks to make the impact of their buying decision more positive to the environment that made it: vegan food that improves animal welfare; second-hand fashion; plastic-free products that don’t pollute our oceans. 

Conscious consumers see their pounds and dollars as votes, spending them on brands whose social, political and moral values align with their own.

Conscious consumerism acts as a barometer of society. Social movements, from carbon neutrality to Black Lives Matter, don’t just affect societal and political change; they also change consumer behaviour. And it’s essential brands pay close attention to these changes so they can remain relevant to their customers – and steal a march on the competition.

Brands can’t rely on loyalty

Loyalty, it ain’t what it used to be.

Mckinsey’s report into consumer behaviour since Covid-19 showed that, globally, customers are ‘trying different shopping behaviours’ and ‘expressing a high intent to incorporate these behaviours going forward’ – i.e., beyond the pandemic.

The report showed that value was the primary motivator in switching to new brands, as well as convenience and availability – backed up by the growing trend towards ecommerce.

Which means that companies relying on brand loyalty and advocacy might be in for a rude awakening.

Brands can’t rely on brand loyalty at a time when social norms are being stressed, tested and broken.

Admittedly, Covid is one hell of a disruptor, and it’s little surprise buying habits have changed accordingly. But Covid is just one strand of a whole disruptive tapestry being woven right now, where social norms are constantly being tested, stressed and broken. Perhaps for good. In such a future, brands won’t be able to rely on such ephemeral things as ‘loyalty’ to survive such seismic changes.

And if what’s important to consumers isn’t reflected in their products – particularly around such emotive subjects as animal welfare and climate change – brands will find themselves losing out to more empathetic and socially aware competitors.

When it emerged that clothing manufacturers Boohoo were reportedly paying their workers as little as £3.50 per hour, they were likened to ‘modern slavers’. The social media backlash was acerbic and the impact of its share price even more so: their stock price tumbled nearly 50% in a week.

It’s too early to tell if this scandal will permanently damage the brand, but the short-to-medium-term impact has been dramatic enough to make any company think twice about such behaviour. 

Not that brand loyalty is a thing of the past. In fact, in understanding what’s increasingly important to their audiences, brands have an opportunity to further cement it. What if your favourite clothing brand releases a range made from offcuts that would normally find their way to landfill? Or your preferred supermarket starts using recyclable packaging for every own-brand product? Or your shampoo brand of choice ditches the plastic and develops a pollutant-free shampoo bar?

In aligning genuine product and brand behaviour (and not just veneer-thin PRable gimmicks) with values people really give a shit about, brands can foster greater emotional ties with customers than ever before.

Like it or not, brands are responsible

As much as smart meter companies keep telling us the power is in our hands™ to save the world, the truth is that industry has the controlling stake in macro-social issues such as global warming, biodiversity collapse, and pollution. After all, corporations make the things we use. They determine how much packaging it’s wrapped in, whether it’s made in a socially responsible way, and its carbon footprint. Indeed, just 100 companies contribute to 71% of global emissions.

So while we as individuals want to go greener, buy fairer, and right social wrongs, the real enablers of conscious consumerism are businesses.

But far from seeing social responsibility as a box-ticking frustration, brands should see it as an opportunity. A way to appeal to audiences increasingly concerned about where their products come from, how they’re made, and where they go once they’ve been used. Being socially aware is a brand and product feature – and, when marketed properly, these features sell. Just take a look at Bombas.

Being woke could send you broke

In representing such a shift in people’s spending motivators, you can understand why conscious consumerism is a tempting bandwagon to jump on. 

In deciding how they can best tap into the conscious consumer trend, businesses need to consider how their product or operations could have a more positive impact on those who make it, those who use, and the environment that houses it. But there’s another important variable to consider – their audience.

Because choosing the wrong ‘cause’ to back can be a disaster, as Gillette discovered almost the moment they released their ‘The best a man can be’ ad in January 2019. 

Gillette’s customers didn’t want a morality lesson from a razor brand.

Dividing opinion from the beginning, the TV spot, which demanded an end to toxic masculinity (without a freshly-shaved-face in sight), quickly inspired calls for a boycott.

Why? Not because Gillette were saying anything incorrect, per se. (The ad, after all, was basically saying: “Don’t be an arsehole.”)

No, the ad prompted a damaging backlash because it didn’t read the room. To many Gillette consumers, the advert felt like a personal, didactic and patronising attack on their character, instead of what it should have been – a reason to buy Gillette razors. 

What Gillette spectacularly failed to appreciate was that their customers didn’t want a morality lesson from a razor company. The brand took a sizeable hit, and so did the business. Its parent company, Procter & Gamble, issued an $8bn write-down for Gillette, primarily thanks to competition from other shaving brands and the growing popularity of beards. But a divisive advert that sought to plonk Gillette on the #metoo driving seat certainly didn’t help.

Luckily, their expensive mistake is a free lesson for other brands: when deciding which cause to support, you must find out if your customers support it, too.

Conscious consumerism is a competitive advantage

The rise in conscious consumerism is really the rise in social movements to redress old inequalities (gender pay gap, #metoo) to challenge newer threats (global warming).

And in being the producers of what we wear, eat, play, drive and so on, brands have a huge responsibility for making conscious consumerism easy. They should pay workers a respectable wage, improve animal welfare, limit their use of plastics, go carbon neutral – and then go carbon negative. 

In short, they should do the things their customers care about. Not just because it’s the right thing to do for their business – brand purpose is a competitive advantage, after all – but because it’s the right thing to do full stop.

We work hard with our clients to turn sustainability into a selling point. Find out if we can do the same for you.

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