Brands urged to go softy, softly with the vulnerable

olive cooke 2The DMA is urging brand owners and their agencies to develop strategies which will enable them to recognise and deal with vulnerable customers, even though it admits the issue is far from black or white.
Earlier this year, the DMA’s so-called “vulnerable consumer taskforce” held an open workshop, inviting experts and marketers from across the industry to participate in a discussion to identify the key challenges, risks and ways that businesses can better cater to vulnerable consumers.
The move was in response to accusations that many charities – and their agencies – were going hell for leather to squeeze money out of potential donors, without a care in the world whether they were vulnerable or not.
This followed the media uproar over the suicide of Bristol pensioner Olive Cooke (pictured), whom it was claimed had taken her own life because she could not cope with the barrage of charity appeals. While the coroner ruled this was not the case – she had suffered depression for many years – the damage had already been done.
Now the DMA taskforce has published a whitepaper ‘The vulnerable consumer’, which highlights the challenge in defining vulnerability and offering some best practice advice for brands.
During the initial workshop, one of the key themes that came out of the discussions was the difficulty in one single definition of what makes a customer vulnerable. This was explained by the changing nature of vulnerability, with customers potentially experiencing anything from short-term distractions to more long-term illness.
The report highlights how even the circumstances and situations people may consider everyday can make a customer vulnerable at a particular moment.
Simply being caught at the wrong moment, while distracted by something more important or feeling social pressure, can cause someone to be more vulnerable in that moment and make a decision they wouldn’t in another context. Therefore, it is crucial that everyone, whether customer-facing or not, within a brand understands and is not holding onto an overly simplistic concept of vulnerability, the whitepaper says.
Elaine Lee, co-chair of the DMA vulnerable consumer taskforce and managing director at ReynoldsBusbyLee, said: “It’s vital that businesses keep in mind that vulnerability is a very changeable and contextual state. Any illness, condition, stress or disadvantage is likely to change over time – whether for the better or worse – and will usually affect your customer differently in any given situation.
“It’s crucial that everyone in an organisation, not just those who are customer-facing, understands this and are not simply defining vulnerability as obvious factors such as physical or mental disabilities. This overly-simplistic approach could lead to businesses missing potentially vulnerable customers, at best leading to a misunderstanding and at worst a more serious problem for the business.”

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