The pandemic has been the ultimate crisis moment – one that has demanded radical and immediate reactions from governments, businesses and individuals alike. There has been an inevitable impact on human behaviour in terms of the pandemic response – from surprisingly high levels of lockdown compliance to the use of facemasks.
But, as the vaccine programme allows us all to at least have hope of a post-pandemic age, Omicron notwithstanding, brands need to ready themselves to rapidly evolving human behaviours with a more fleet of foot approach to gathering consumer insights.
Radical social change is often a marketer’s blind spot. But people have lived through a time of trauma and within that there has been both collective and individual growth, making these changes a facet of everyday life that marketers cannot ignore.
Today, this is playing out through a sea change in terms of a principled attitude to consumption. With 38% of respondents to a Deloitte survey saying they’ve “actively engaged” within the last 12 months – signing a petition, attending a protest, or donating and campaigning for a cause – we are seeing the mainstreaming of an everyday activism mindset.
Spurred on by the global pandemic, intensified by the racial justice uprisings of 2020, and expedited by the climate emergency, a mass orientation towards an intersectional, planetary justice will only become more crucial over the coming year.
The pandemic has demonstrated to people how governments and businesses can react to an emergency, and they are demanding a similar scale of effort to address the climate crisis.
And, significant proportions of people are now willing to put their money where their ethics are – 28% of respondents to the Deloitte survey said they have stopped buying certain brands or products because of ethical/sustainability concerns.
And more citizens are doing their homework – they know how to find out about corporate practices and are increasingly aware when a business is indulging in ethics-washing or green-washing. In fact, more than half (53%) said they can spot ‘trust-washing’ in marketing according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer.
This is affecting every sector – as people desire to be treated as the whole human, and not just a consumer or employee, or any other designated compartment.
The best way for brands to move in front of big social changes is to understand their audience. Rather than solely reacting to the demands of people power, after being caught off-guard or found guilty in the court of public opinion, it is more important than ever for the consumer insights industry to help brands to understand, anticipate, and plan for consumers’ increasingly entrenched – and urgent – principles.
From the Great Resignation to “regeneration” mania, consumers increasingly want to see businesses adopt truly human-centric principles, from empathy to justice. In the new era of protest, from sustainability campaigners to Black Lives Matter, the voice of the people is louder than ever.
So to help brands understand, anticipate and plan for consumers’ increasingly entrenched – and urgent – principles, there are three specific drivers from our ‘signal cynics’ behaviours that marketers should consider.
World Weariness: Police brutality, devastating wildfires, political misinformation, Covid-19, and potential recession – bad news has come thick which has compounded negative sentiment.
As we come out of COP26 with limited progress, it has fuelled distrust in the ability of powerful institutions to act in the interest of a better world.
Shared Responsibility: The interconnectedness of the modern world is reminding people of their global responsibilities. The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed businesses and individuals to acknowledge their complicity in systemic racism, and while Big Oil is sidestepping the spotlight for its role in the climate emergency, other sectors and their consumers – particularly fashion – are looking at how their impact can be minimised for the sake of the planet.
Brands are being asked to think outside their commercial remit, considering their wider responsibilities as producers, innovators and industry leaders.
Fragmented Ethics: People know that individual action is important, but also that ethical consumption is complicated. Not knowing what counts as truly ethical has led to moral confusion and has widened the gap between actions and values.
While people often care about various causes, they can struggle to compromise on convenience, acting on wilful ignorance as a result. In turn, they’re looking to brands to help them make the right choices.
Some brands have stepped up as a reckoning takes place in the market and consumers demand clear evidence of long-term action. For instance, Stella McCartney has significantly invested in research and development of new sustainable materials — setting a precedent for the rest of the fashion industry and proving that regenerative business practices are possible. And Patagonia has dropped all use of the word ‘sustainable’ in recognition that, as a for-profit enterprise, it is part of the global climate change problem.
People’s increasingly principled behaviour cuts across all areas of their lives and how they expect to see corporations and institutions respond. Activist causes are no longer niche, and people’s demands and desires are not surface level virtue signalling, they are holding businesses and marketers accountable for what they’re saying and what they propose.
The reality of the limits of what individual change can achieve means people want cultural leaders, businesses and brands to do it for them – they want meaningful action which requires long-term planning and innovation from the brands.