OPINION26 July 2022

The rise of the socially-conscious consumer

Europe Opinion Trends

The war in Ukraine and the reaction from consumers to the moral issues the war raises underlines why digital data is vital to understand the socially-conscious consumer of the future, says Zappi’s Steve Phillips.

Ukrainian flag at peace protest

It’s no surprise that consumers have become much more conscious of how they shop and consume. From the pandemic shifting their focus to shopping with smaller and local businesses, to several brands being wildly critiqued for not suspending their operations in Russia fast enough when the war in Ukraine broke out, to some of the biggest fashion brands being caught in the eye of the storm for failing to pay their garment workers the minimum wage, there have been countless catalysts lately for this groundswell of support for more responsible choices.

Dubbed the socially conscious consumer — one that votes for their values with their wallet — this increasingly sceptical type of consumer is creating a new consumption paradigm. What does this mean for brands? Two things: simply put, there is an urgent need and an opportunity for marketers to better meet their needs; and as a result of this, having the right data to understand and more accurately predict what they want and expect has never become more important.

The rise of the socially conscious consumer
It was only recently that you could see Marlboro cigarettes on billboards or McDonald’s burgers advertised during children’s TV programmes. So, you may be forgiven for thinking this is part of the standard evolution as we, as consumers, learn and understand more about the world we live in. 

Yet this shift we're seeing today seems entirely different. In fact, it is a seismic shift away from the advertising and product placement we were used to into something that requires a more unique and genuine response by brands.

Social justice movements, cost of living, wealth inequality, climate change and other environmental issues – look no further than the news cycle to understand that consumers are becoming more careful about the businesses they support, the products they use and the footprint they leave behind. But not only does the socially conscious consumer expect brands to hold the same values and standards as they do; for them, the fact that businesses take a stand on societal issues and make pledges isn’t an added value to their experience as your customer anymore — it’s the inner foundation your trust relationship is built on. And the younger the generation, the greater the strive for balance and advocating for driving societal change, which, in turn, translates into higher scepticism and expectations of brands. 

The war in Ukraine: a catalyst for consolidation
The war in Ukraine has been a magnifying glass on the power that these socially conscious consumers have. Given a voice through social platforms and a willingness to follow through with their wallets, brands have been forced to listen. One of the most talked-about examples was the pressure on McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to pull out of Russia, with consumers causing #BoycottMcDonalds and #BoycottCocaCola to trend on Twitter and ultimately pushing both giants to leave the country. Yet while the ramifications might be easy to point out, the real difficulty for brands here is figuring out what consumers ultimately want them to do to get it right the first time.

Recent research by Zappi into consumer attitudes towards the war in Ukraine has shown that an overwhelming 75% of UK respondents support brands boycotting advertising in Russia, with 63% of US consumers agreeing. Taking this further, when it comes to ceasing business transactions with Russian suppliers and exporting business to Russia, 75% of those in the UK and 64% in the US claim brands should still support such a move.

Ultimately, there is a widely held belief by consumers that if a brand supports Ukraine, they should acknowledge it, with 70% of UK and 59% of US respondents agreeing that businesses should be clear about their support of Ukraine. But this needs to be done carefully, as a substantial proportion of consumers ( 40% in the UK and 42% in the US) fear businesses commenting on the war might want to exploit it to their advantage.

The lines between getting consumer expectations right and wrong are not always clear, with huge consequences for a brand on the wrong side. This was demonstrated expertly a few weeks ago by US supermarket Walmart, which was lambasted by consumers for trying to profit from a holiday meant to memorialise the end of slavery by selling Juneteenth-inspired themed ice cream. But Walmart’s ice cream is only the latest in a long list of poorly-judged decisions that caused brand outrage among consumers over the years. 

Insights that matter
There is no shortage of topical social issues for brands to currently navigate these days. What is clear is that in such an uncertain and highly scrutinised environment, brands must find new and better ways to listen to their consumers and stay on top of shifting sentiments and opinions. Relying on gut instinct is not an option anymore. With the power and presence that these socially conscious consumers have, a lack of understanding of how their ideas resonate with consumers might pave the way to bad decisions that will backfire in the long run.

Typically, it isn’t the decisions made post-launch that doom the majority of ideas to failure and may lead to consumer rage. Instead, it is usually the decisions made during the creative process, before launch, that are to blame. That’s why it is crucial for brands to invest in digital consumer insights platforms to access pre-launch data in an agile and iterative way — feedback and insights from consumers that tell them what resonates, what doesn’t and how they react to their ideas — so they can align their innovations, communications and messaging with consumers expectations before launch.

Not only will this increase brands’ confidence level in making critical business decisions and optimise their spending on consumer insights, but only those businesses that get this right and use pre-launch digital consumer insights effectively to test and iterate in that crucial pre-launch phase will earn the awareness, sentiment, and trust their socially conscious consumers so badly want to see.

And for those that don’t? Well, I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough on our social media feeds.

Steve Phillips is chief executive at Zappi