Consumers are protesting more and trusting less

Consumers are protesting more and trusting less

Recent research from global marketing consultancy Edelman reveals consumers are increasingly inclined to choose brands on the basis of shared values. Communicating ethical positions through brand marketing can, therefore, offer significant new opportunities to build brand loyalty but, Ben Cooper writes, belief-driven consumers expect companies to act in accordance with those beliefs, and not just espouse them.

Trust in public institutions and politicians may be at a very low ebb, but the same is not quite true of brands. Research from global marketing and communications specialists Edelman suggests consumers are willing to put their trust in brands if they strike a chord with their beliefs and values.

The 2017 Edelman Earned Brand study, published earlier this month, suggests 57% of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. Some 30% of the 14,000 respondents across 14 countries said they make these "belief-driven" purchase decisions more than they did three years ago.

According to the survey, 50% of consumers worldwide consider themselves to be "belief-driven buyers". Some 67% said they had bought a brand for the first time because they agreed with its position on a controversial issue, while 65% said they would not buy a brand that is silent on an issue they feel it should address.

The study, Edelman says, not only highlights rising consumer expectation that brands can help tackle societal problems, but also "spotlights an enormous opportunity for brands that heed this call to gain new buyers and realise stronger consumer relationships more quickly".

The survey appears to provide further vindication for the levels of investment that major drinks companies are putting into sustainability. Heineken says it concurs with the trends Edelman identifies, and seeks to have its global sustainability strategy "reflected in the relationships our brands have with their consumers".

"We recognise the outcomes of the survey," a Heineken spokesperson says. "Our sustainability strategy 'Brewing a Better World' focuses on the areas where we can make the biggest difference as a business, like, for instance, CO2 emissions reduction and responsible consumption. It also inspires our brands to align their brand purpose with environmental and social issues."

Examples include an activation for Mexican beer brand Tecate last year to raise awareness around domestic violence, the six-year global partnership recently announced between Tiger beer and WWF to support tiger conservation efforts, and a new partnership between Heineken's 'When you drive, never drink' campaign and Formula 1 motor racing. "Heineken, Tecate and Tiger are connecting with consumers through the positions they are taking on things that matter to these brands and consumers alike," the brewer's spokesperson says.

When examining consumer buy-in on sustainability concerns, a reality check is always advisable

When examining consumer buy-in on sustainability concerns, a reality check is always advisable. Many consumers remain uninterested and unmotivated by such concerns. Indeed, Edelman points out its research shows that 50% of consumers rarely buy on belief or punish a brand if it takes a stand on a controversial issue.

Nevertheless, the other 50% of the market is not only the constituency that it is growing, but also comprises higher proportions of key demographics. Some 60% of Millennials buy on belief, according to the survey, while among Gen Z the proportion is 53% and for Gen X consumers 51%.

Furthermore, while companies naturally emphasise being a good corporate citizen and doing the right thing, Edelman makes no bones about the commercial opportunities belief-driven consumerism can offer. When consumers agree with a stance taken by a brand, they will "reward it greatly", Edelman says. According to the survey, 23% will pay at least a 25% premium, 48% will advocate for and defend the brand - and even criticise its competitors - while 51% will be loyal, buying the brand exclusively and more often.

Advocates for more sustainable business practices stress the business benefits they offer. The Edelman research appears to underline that fostering brand loyalty is becoming an increasingly important factor supporting the "win-win" that a greater commitment to sustainability can yield.

"We share the view that there's a very significant opportunity for companies to build better solutions for customers that also solve societal issues," Matt Loose, senior director at sustainable business consultants SustainAbility, tells just-drinks. "We are encouraged that many companies are now developing brands with this purpose at heart."

There has been a sharp drop in public trust in all institutions, government, business, media and NGOs

At a time when public trust is low, it seems surprising that increasing numbers of consumers are prepared to take brands at face value when they take positions on social or environmental issues. Once again, a reality check is probably advisable. As Edelman's 'Trust Barometer' revealed earlier this year, there has been a sharp drop in public trust in all institutions, government, business, media and NGOs.

However, this research also suggested the public believe that brands can make a difference. Three out of four respondents agreed a company can take actions that both increase their profits and improve economic and social conditions in the communities in which they operate.

What the recent research into belief-driven buying appears to suggest is if consumers see overt messaging at a brand level on issues they care about, they are strongly inclined to identify with those brands and commit to them. Not only that, it appears more consumers believe buying brands that exhibit a social conscience offers a practical way to contribute to addressing issues they consider important.

That said, while marketing and brand messaging may be the means by which companies can communicate their values to the swelling ranks of belief-driven consumers, it is their actions that will matter most to these consumers. "You can't make this up," says Carlsberg media director Kasper Elbjørn. "Your solutions to societal problems must be honest and authentic. They should run in the company's DNA and, equally importantly, the CEO must drive the process."

Substance is clearly critical. A "robust sustainability framework" must lie behind what brands are communicating, Matt Loose says.

Also, particularly in these times, public trust is hard to earn and that much harder to win back if it is seen to be betrayed. In seeking empathy with consumers about matters they hold dear, brands are raising the stakes. The reward may be greater loyalty, but the penalty for falling short of the higher ethical standards they claim to share with their values-led consumers will be severe.

The Edelman survey shows consumers are willing to decry competitor brands that do not match their standards. It is not hard to imagine how such consumers would react to a brand they felt had let them down. 

While companies do have more to say about sustainability than they ever did before, and consumers appear to be listening, they would do well to remember that, ultimately, this is not about the message but what lies behind it.