The old adage ‘the customer is king’ is now more true than ever, thanks in no small part to the explosion of social media and the voice and connectivity it offers Joe Public. It’s little wonder so many business decisions are based solely upon customer needs and wants.
It’s also no surprise that corporate sustainability leaders have increasingly been keen to connect their sustainability efforts to these same consumer desires, using market needs to better inform decision making and to justify investments.
And so engaging consumers with stories of sustainability performance, practices, innovations and ideals has become an all-important part of corporate marketing and communications – not only in making sure that what a business deems to be important is aligned to the values of its customers, but also in mitigating the reputational risks attached to misleading consumers with bogus claims or being targeted by NGO campaigns.
Some are getting it right. The bold and ambitious Sustainable Living Plan by Unilever seems to be working, with CEO Paul Polman claiming the brands that are best responding to increasing customer demand for responsibility are delivering stronger and faster growth. These so-called ‘sustainable living brands’ accounted for half the company’s growth in 2014 and grew at twice the rate of the rest of the business.
The outdoor clothing company Patagonia is another example of how high levels of engagement has built a loyal consumer base, fully-wedded to its anti-fast-fashion philosophy.
But examples like these are thin on the ground. So far, companies have struggled to engage consumers in a way that will connect the dots between responsibility and commerciality. And their customers remain unexcited and somewhat sceptical, tired of the cliched doom-mongering that fuels most messaging about climate change, environmental destruction and resource scarcity.
However, opportunities abound. All of the evidence points to the fact that more and more people do care about corporate responsibility – not just about how much pollution a company creates, but also how it treats its workers or whether it pays enough tax. The latest BBMG and GlobeScan research also claims that consumption is being redefined by a growing group of ‘Aspirationals’ – people who are just as interested in shopping, style and fashion as they are in responsible consumption and demanding that the brands they know and love act in the best interests of society.
In analysing the interests of this group, the study suggests that green marketers have been speaking about sustainability to the wrong consumers all along, wrongly assuming that business growth would come about by engaging the most committed advocates within the customer base. By targeting this new group – that combine an authentic commitment to sustainability with a love of shopping, design and social status – companies can more easily encourage people to change their shopping habits.
However, while the audience of interested parties continues to grow, engaging them in way that drives growth is not going to be easy. Yes, the Aspirationals combine a care for the planet with a love of shopping unlike the previous generation – but there is little evidence to suggest they are willing to pay a premium for products and services to be produced and delivered in the most responsible way. For example, the likes of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) continue to bemoan the lack of consumer interest in eco-labelling which is stifling the required scaling-up of sustainable sourcing of palm oil and timber – and that’s after many years of trying.
So, can engaging consumers ever be successful in driving corporate sustainability efforts forward? With much to learn from social marketing, behavioural economics, the impact of a growing middle class in China and India, and continued trials to choice-edit consumer offerings, companies face an uncertain future, but one in which fixing consumer engagement will only get more important.
This piece was written in preparation of the forthcoming Innovation Forum event, ‘Sustainability: Why current consumer engagement fails – and how to fix it’ taking place in London on 9th November 2015.