The rise of the conscious consumer

Jodie Sangster

Jodie Sangster has been the CEO of the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA) since 2011 and is also chairperson for the International Federation of Direct Marketing Associations (IFDMA). She has worked across the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific for 14 years with a focus on data-driven marketing and privacy, and began her career as a lawyer in London specialising in data protection. Her resume includes senior positions at Acxiom Asia-Pacific and the Direct Marketing Association in New York.

The concept of consumers boycotting brands and publishers isn’t a new one.

Perhaps the best-known example is Nestlé. In protest of its aggressive marketing of baby food products in less economically developed countries, a boycott movement that began in the 1970s in Europe quickly spread across the globe.

And in a homegrown movement, certain brands of milk were avoided by consumers in May 2016 after it was revealed dairy processors and exporter, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, had slashed the price it was willing to pay Australian dairy farmers for their product.

In the last quarter of 2016, however, the issue of brand ethics was put firmly in the spotlight. From the recent decision by Lego to drop its commercial deal with the Daily Mail following pressure from the ‘Stop Funding Hate’ campaign, to the ‘Grab Your Wallet’ campaign in the US urging consumers to boycott Trump-related products and services, consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets. Our customers are choosing to make what they perceive to be positive decisions about what they buy and where they spend their money – and offset what they feel to be the negative effects of consumerism.

This type of conscious consumerism has been on the rise for a while but social media has – and continues to – act as an accelerant. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are making it much easier for consumer activists to share information and lobby for specific campaigns.

For example, while it was Waleed Aly’s ‘We need to talk about’ TV segment on The Project that pushed the dairy farmers’ issue into the public eye, it was the sharing of the segment on social media that really galvanised the campaign.

Brand ethics beyond CSR

Our digital age has ushered in a new level of transparency and openness where authenticity has become more important than it has even been; largely as it is easier for people to smell and call out – to be frank – bullsh*t. This means that merely ticking the corporate social responsibility (CSR) box won’t cut it anymore.

Companies increasingly must walk the talk and address the growing demand for ethical behaviour across areas like supply chain sourcing, employee pay and gender equality.

In November 2016, for example, Airbnb introduced a mandatory ‘pledge’ for users of its service to sign in to agree to: ‘Treat everyone – regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age – with respect, and without judgment or bias.’

While Airbnb’s actions have no doubt been galvanised by the spectre of lawsuits, it will be an interesting test case to monitor consumer reaction and impact on their behaviours, good or bad.

Going forward, brands will increasingly be called upon to publicly define and prove what they stand for. The notion of ‘brands with purpose’ has been around for a while. They are typically defined as companies that add meaning to a service or product to connect on an emotional level. Purpose is often tied to giving back to local communities or the environment.

A winning formula

Perhaps the best-known examples of brands with purpose are Dove and Chobani. The former is known for its promotion of women’s self-esteem, while the latter is respected for its operating mission, ‘the how matters’.

In fact, Chobani is a particularly good example of a brand that has created immense value from focusing on a higher purpose. The yoghurt producer went from a 2005 startup to over $1 billion in revenue business in a decade. Yet it entered a crowded market with nothing particularly inventive or unique to differentiate it aside from its ‘how’ and its focus on creating ‘nothing but good’ for both consumers and its supply chain.

Naturally, Chobani offers a good product, but a large part of its success has been to do with an unwavering focus on the ‘how’. From the humane treatment of its cows, to the fair and respected relationship with its farmers, to giving each of its employees a stake in the private company, it is a case study in authenticity.

This authenticity also served Chobani well when dealing with a recall crisis on a small batch of product in 2013. This led with an apology from its founder that began: ‘Dear fans and customers, I’m’ sorry I let you down and has become a lauded example of crisis communication (see breakout box).

As we move through 2017, I expect to see even more consumer pressure on brands as they are called into question issues like gender equality, employee condition, political affiliations and environmental concerns.

But what does it truly take to foster such a holistic approach?

Making change holistic

Management boards will be required to ensure they are clear on how ‘the how matters’ to their operations in order to avoid being caught in either a knee-jerk response or in an inauthentic one. A recent example of what not to do has been 7-Eleven’s misleading press releases and failure to follow up on its promise to improve pay and working conditions for its employees.

Working out your ‘how’ starts with a clear company philosophy that distils a company’s overall culture into core values that inform all areas of its business.

US online shoe retailer, Zappos, for example, is highly respected for its culture, which is clearly laid out for all to see on its website. It helps create an identity for a company that differentiates it from the crowd and develops an employee base with common values.

Companies should create hypothetical scenarios in which there is tension between profit, customer experience and ethics. Once you begin to document how you should react, you begin to gain clarity on values and ultimately, what you stand for.

Ultimately, however, the big questions must be asked of management. They are responsible for defining, developing, refining and evolving a company’s culture, values and ethics alongside their employees, partners and customers.

As the consumer becomes more conscious, now is the time to hold up the mirror and make sure you are comfortable with what is reflected.  

Tags: data-driven marketing, brand strategy

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