It isn’t just a global pandemic, or even Brexit, that made the past few years so tough for brands. For several years before there was a need to pivot to meet the new purchasing behaviours brought on by lockdown, changes were already taking place in society that had (and still have) a direct impact on consumers’ relationships with brands. And now that we are looking to establish a post-lockdown and post-Brexit, ‘new normal’, the ability of brands to respond to those changes will be more important than ever.
So, how have consumers changed when it comes to picking brands?
Consumer change does not happen in a vacuum, rather it is a manifestation of changes happening in the wider society. As figures from Edelman, the world’s largest PR and marketing consultancy firm, showed back in 2018, there has been a substantial shift in consumers’ trust – in short, they are tending to trust businesses more than governments, now.
This seems to be an organic development from a trend identified by the same firm in 2017, for consumers to make purchasing decisions based upon their own ethical and/or political beliefs. By 2018, Edelman found, 64% were belief-driven buyers and many felt brands had better ideas for, and were better able to drive, social change than the government.
By 2019 and 2020, Edelman found the change well embedded, with a large majority of consumers saying they needed to trust brands ‘to do what is right’, and increasingly seeing their purchase as a ‘vote’, in terms of embracing or ignoring brands based on their ethical, political and social positions.
Clearly, remaining silent is not an option. Brands must pin their colours to the mast in order to be noticed.
‘Green’ marketing – opportunity or fraught with danger?
This large shift in attitude presents both a challenge and a benefit. It is a golden opportunity for creative brands to showcase their innovation and ethical status by taking a stand on social issues. This is clear from the number of brands that have rushed to claim green credentials by aligning themselves with sustainability and protection of the natural world, one of the foremost ethical concerns among modern consumers.
This ‘greening’ has led to many successful campaigns with genuine benefits for the environment. Brands have recycled clothing, had fun with bottle banks, others have clearly and visibly put sustainability at the core of their brand and positioned themselves as thought leaders, backing it up with top-quality visuals and marketing.
There are clear benefits for brands that align themselves with green causes, and these are likely to persist, as Edelman’s figures show. And as brands become greener, the wider community, economy and societies generally can flourish. It is in everybody’s interest for as many brands as possible to seek genuine eco credentials.
But there are definitely pitfalls to avoid along the way. These include:
- Green branding that seems tokenistic or inauthentic – this can be counter-productive, putting consumers (and potential employees and investors) off rather than attracting them.
- Aligning the brand with a cause – any cause, but especially a contentious one – without carefully considering the feelings of target consumers. This problem famously hit a leading cosmetics brand in 2018.
- Over-reliance on green clichés – these give the impression of tokenism and will cause the brand to get lost among the millions of barely-distinguishable campaigns out there.
- Making claims that the brand can’t back up – those green credentials have to be genuine, and demonstrable, or customers will turn away.
How can brands break through the ‘green noise’?
The marketplace is probably more challenging for brands now, than it has been before. Many events (Covid-19, Brexit, social change, social media, technology) are colliding to make the world a shifting and uncertain place.
Brands must align themselves with causes if they wish to be recognised, they no longer have a choice about that. But since all intelligent brands are doing it, it takes not just originality but also consistency and authenticity to differentiate a brand from its competitors.
It means genuinely believing in something and living out that belief.
That does not mean mere ‘talking about greenness’ and/or adding a leaf to the brand’s logo and pictures of trees to the website. It means demonstrating a commitment to green ideals at every customer touchpoint. It means taking on the social responsibility and leadership roles that consumers now credit brands with, and manifesting it in products, marketing and brand behaviours in a thoughtful way that earns the trust of consumers, would-be employees and potential investors.
A genuine commitment to green issues is that way forward for brands. For, with consumers losing trust in governments but increasingly aligning themselves with brands they trust, there has never been a better time for brands to take the future into their own hands.