PUBLIC Speaking: Leveraging the Power of Conscious Consumers

Globally, consumers are ever more conscious of being conscious and recent studies indicate they’re starting to put their money where their mouths are, shelling out more of their hard-earned dollars for products and services from socially responsible brands. The result: companies are rushing to establish their spot in the social impact space. Business case made–right?

Not quite. Despite the data, we know that convenience often trumps ideals when a consumer is hurtling down the shopping aisle with a parking meter running low and the less-ethical brand is in reach and on sale. The brands having real success are those taking note and making the socially conscious choice foolproof, reducing the grey area between consumer intent and action. They’re not asking consumers to do the research, join the movement or stop consuming–they’re making it easy for consumers who don’t have the time, energy or knowledge to make the more responsible choice.

Loblaws, Canada’s largest buyer and seller of seafood, is committed to procuring 100% sustainable seafood. Bathroom tissue suppliers, including Cashmere EnviroCare and Who Gives a Crap, are selling TP made from 100% recycled fibres. Even apparel brands, such as Cuyana, Everlane and Zady, are pushing consumers to be more mindful and deliberate in their purchasing behaviour (REI famously closed its doors during last year’s Black Friday shopping bonanza and fashion designer Vivien Westwood actually advocates for consuming less). These brands are ahead of the game, and they’re winning.

Of course, with great promise also comes great peril: incongruity between message and brand can backfire for even the biggest corporations, and social media amplifies everything. Poor execution can give even the hardiest brands an Icarus complex (see: Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate,” McDonald’s kids pedometer fail, and Chipotle’s “food with integrity” tagline after that whole e coli scandal).

So how do the good ones do it? By starting with three key principles that inform everything they do in the social impact space.

First up, be authentic. Brands’ actions need to live up to the promises made in their messaging. Consumers are increasingly savvy, especially in the social media space, and they’ll use both their dollars and their personal megaphones to voice their support or register their displeasure. Also, the social impact piece of the brand needs to align with its business offering. Purpose should be in the very DNA of the company–not an appendage tacked on in a ham-handed attempt to build credibility.

Next up, be human. Consumers appreciate brands that show their humanity and are more likely to remain loyal when they’re included in the journey toward more lofty, world-changing goals. Take Veja, the maker of ecological sneakers and accessories, which includes a section called “Limitations” on its website where it shares all the ways in which its shoes do not meet its own standards of ethical production. (That a batch of what was meant to be organic cotton used in production was not pesticide-free seems more palatable when it’s explained that a caterpillar attack led farmers to spray their harvest, and Veja didn’t want to renege on its commitment to purchase the supply.)

Finally, be nimble. The Reformation, a high-end, eco-friendly clothing retailer headquartered in Los Angeles, has had its ups and downs with employees’ posts and brand ads drawing criticism for being racist and classist. But they’ve been quick to both apologize to their audience and push back where a larger conversation was warranted. And while an apology may only go so far, their humility – coupled with a rapid, thoughtful reaction to the scandal – shows they’re present and engaged, something consumers appreciate in a sea of brands executing a dodge-and-ignore strategy.

Kasha Huk is an Account Manager at PUBLIC Inc.

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