Talking To The Post-Recession Consumer

P L Chadwick [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Shopping will never be the same. (CC P L Chadwick)

We would like to believe that the worst of the recession is behind us. Although we are cautiously optimistic about the future, deep down we know that things will never be the same. The downturn scared us good. Goodbye mindless consumption and hello budgets. In a study by Ogilvy of 1200 American respondents, 73% said they would rather have fewer, high quality things. A full 92% say they are using coupons, 91% are shopping at cheaper/discount stores and 90% are buying more store brands. Those who spent recklessly in the good old days are starting to enjoy a more thrifty lifestyle. The post-recession consumer is here to stay.

The mantra is mindful consumption. Consumers are not just frugal, they are far more conscious of the power of their dollar to influence how companies operate. The Wall Street debacles have left customers skeptical of most large organizations, government and media included. A growing demand for “trustworthy” businesses has pushed the consumer to return to locally-run enterprises, where you-know-the-owners-and-the-owners-know-you. In the Ogilvy study, when consumers were asked what made them most upset about the recession, failure to adequately support local businesses (49%) was second only to government giving bailouts to big banks (58%) as the most frequent answer.

That buyers are connecting their values with their shopping is most evident in the the Young & Rubicam’s Brand Asset Valuator (BAV) data. The BAV is a 20-year database of consumer values, attitudes, and shopping behaviors. From well before the recession began, a growing number of people started to reject brand values associated with status and snobbery, such as, “exclusive” (down 60 percent), “arrogant” (down 41 percent), “sensuous” (down 30 percent), and “daring” (down 20 percent). Values that saw a steady climb were associated with doing good or making the world a better place, such as, “kindness and empathy” (up 391 percent), “friendly” (up 148 percent), “high quality” (up 124 percent), and “socially responsible” (up 63 percent).

For businesses driven by sustainability goals, this is all good news. Customers are questioning their previously extravagant habits and returning to a lifestyle guided by values. However, simply riding the wave is not enough. Sustainability marketing needs to capitalize on the post-recession mindset. Here are three key lessons:

Keep it real: It is critical to connect everyday business to values that you and your employees truly believe in. Your company is making a real effort to make a difference, no matter how small it may be, and your marketing campaign should reflect this.  Unless it is 100% genuine, your business runs the grave risk of being branded as insincere, exploitative or callous. And as a number of ex-Wall Street firms know, that is not a good place to be.

Put down roots:  We like local businesses, they make us feel safe. In order to grow, we understand that companies do move out of their comfort zone but some of the successful ones remind us that they belong to a small town somewhere. Take Ben & Jerry’s, L.L. Bean or my favorite, Stonyfield. Having a home base can send the right message to jittery consumers, one that says we are real.

Share and listen: Consumers are demanding greater transparency from the companies they buy from. This need for information is moving beyond review-trolling to the necessity to know where and how products are made, transported and recycled. Good Guide, for example, provides shoppers with sustainability ratings for over 140,000 products. With the proliferation of social media, sharing is increasingly becoming a two-way street. Engaging your customers in conversation is crucial to keeping them on-board.

The message: Keeping it real, putting down roots, sharing and listening will bring you one step closer to that elusive badge for businesses today, “trustworthy”.

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