The New “Conscientious Consumer” – Who They Are and How to Connect With Them

Emerging Cultural Codes – The Foundations of ChangeConsumers are becoming more conscious on many levels. In fact the way in which they are making decisions and expressing preferences within our culture is undergoing a fundamental change. So much so that the business community is overflowing with articles, books and conference discussions about what is happening. Who are these conscientious consumers and how should companies that provide consumer products go about connecting with them?The shift in consumer behavior is being attributed to a variety of factors. These include technology, the desire for engagement, self determination and sustainability to name just a few. All of these factors are most certainly in play but they are the expression of a deeper groundswell of change and the emergence of a new set of cultural codes that define the way people behave across all areas of their lives. The way in which people consume is one of the most visible aspects of this change and the most studied because it is the basis of profitability for so many companies. As such, consumer behavior provides an interesting insight into the dominant and emerging codes that define the very nature of the culture that we live in. These codes can be seen as the foundation on which all trends, fashions and fads are built and will be the starting point for this look into today’s consumers.The Context of Cultural ChangeCultural evolution and its impact on social and hence consumer behavior is a continuum that can be traced back through history to the very inception of our engagement in commerce and trade. Looking back provides interesting insight into the way people consumed in the past but also highlights the dominant codes that determine consumer behavior today. It also allows us to make reasonable predictions about how that behavior will change going forward.Looking BackConsumerism as we know it began to emerge after the conclusion of the Second World War. The manufacturing capability established to support the war effort was redirected towards the production of affordable consumer products for the emerging middle class. At that time the dominant cultural code was conformity, stability and normalcy. An understandable response to the upheaval and social trauma caused by WW2 and the basis of the white picket fence mentality where people tried to look and behave very much alike. Brands that appealed to this core cultural need prospered. This meant a huge demand for mass manufacturing, standardized products and this consumption drove the incredible growth and prosperity of this era. To summarize the next 40 or so years, the 60’s marked somewhat of a return to the notion of individuality but this was not widespread enough to become the dominant cultural code. Recession in the 70’s slowed things down significantly and then the 80’s and 90’s were really all about bigger and better. Very status oriented. The wholesaling of previously luxury brands, supersizing of cars, diamonds, labels and so on.What It MeansWhat is interesting about this perspective on consumer behavior is the consumer has not really changed at all. They continue to consume in a way that expresses the dominant cultural themes that define the era in which they live. They consistently seek to represent the values and display the status markers that garner approval and represent success as it is defined by their culture. So it is times that change and to understand the conscientious consumer we need to understand the social context in which they consume how that impacts their preferences and molds their interpretation of value.Our Life and TimesSo what is the cultural environment that represents the backdrop to this conscientious consumer? The codes are numerous but a few stand out in terms of really driving the way that people consume. Consumers are looking for engagement with the brands that they purchase. They want a sense of self determination and the opportunity to establish an individualized identity. There is growing distrust of large corporations and people are replacing corporate with self representation. There is incredible new access to information through technology so consumers are significantly more informed and sophisticated. Finally, awareness, responsibility and sustainability are the new status markers and people are looking to represent these cultural values in the way that they spend.The Conscientious ConsumerSo why the term Conscientious Consumer? Conscientious means several things in this context. Consumers are smarter and better informed. Their purchasing represents this by being either price wise, as in a bargain, or reflective of the social values outlined above. They use peer to peer formats such as social networking to gather information and don’t take ads and corporate product representations at face value. They rely heavily on word of mouth to steer and then reinforce their choices and spend a considerable amount of time researching options on-line before they buy. They are as focused on the experience of purchasing as they are on the attributes of the product that they buy and they are prepared to spend significantly more if the product allows them to display the status markers defined above. They are also looking for more control in the purchasing process and the opportunity to differentiate themselves and emphasize their individuality. They foster a new interpretation of value that has more to do with what product says about who they are and what is important to them. So they are conscientious in terms of how well informed they are but also in terms of their connectivity with other consumers and the basis of their decision making as it pertains to cultural codes and values.TranslatedSo what does this all mean to companies looking to thrive in this new space? All the debate and discussion associated with this shifting landscape, while fascinating, becomes academic if it doesn’t translate into usable guidelines and recommendations for companies seeking to connect with these consumers. In order to thrive, companies need to understand what consumers are looking for and create products and experiences that reflect those things.Pick a PolePurchasing is becoming polarized around two somewhat different goals; the hunt for a bargain and the desire to display the new, conscientious and sustainable status markers. This is driving interesting phenomena called the death of the middle class product. Simply put, people will buy products that represent the least expensive or will spend a lot more to buy novel, custom, luxury or eco friendly goods that satisfy the consumers’ ideal representation of themselves. Much of what lies in between is starting to disappear. A good example of this is the demise of the American car industry that has been churning out mid priced, average quality product for decades and has failed to identify the need to be either cleaner, cheaper or more luxury based. Consumer products companies should pick their spot on this map around one of these poles and stay out of the middle.Create SpaceIt is becoming clear that consumers are paying as much attention to the experience of purchasing as they are to the attributes of the products that they buy. Companies are investing heavily in creating both physical and digital environments that conform to new patterns spending. To generalize about these spaces, they are designed to create the sense of a community that is reflective in the growth of social networking. They are a fun and easy place to hang out and allow the consumer to explore in ways that feel inconsequential. In other words the consumer does not feel like they are being sold on something or steered towards a decision. Finally they are operating as an information resource to the consumer in order to develop trust or purporting to represent ideal values such as sustainability. A couple of great examples of this are Anthropology on the retail side where they have set up areas in the store where customers can sit down and socialize. On the web, Trulia.com is a great example because of its use of chat rooms and information resources. The look and feel of the site is light and there is no directive towards a transaction.Create a Customizable ProductConsumers are trying hard to differentiate themselves and demonstrate a level of individuality in the way that they consume. This being true, the more the consumer can manipulate the experience of purchasing the product or the product itself, the more able they are to satisfy this desire. NileGuide.com is a web based travel company that allows you to research and plan your trip online. Nothing new there but this company has differentiated itself by allowing the customer to create custom itinerary based travel guides to take with them, collect or share with friends. This is a great example of a company that has tapped into people’s desire for a custom product that allows them to project there individuality to their social sphere.
Engagement and speaking the right languageIt’s not just about having the right product and the right space to sell it from. Consumers want and need to be engaged. Engagement is about establishing a relationship with the consumer over time and creating an emotional connection between them and your brand. Engagement means different things in different consumer environments but always means greater customer loyalty and price desensitization. Engagement today means creating a compelling and authentic message that creates an emotional connection amongst consumers. Method has done an excellent job creating this connection by delivering an strong eco sensitive message in the context of household cleaning products.Keep It CleanConsumers have the information resources to check a companies messaging and brand identity against their corporate practices and values. Companies are required more and more to walk the marketing and PR talk that they have become so expert in delivering. Keeping it clean means conforming to a higher set of values that can be communicated through the brand. Subaru is currently touting a new manufacturing facility with a zero carbon foot print as a way to counter flagging auto sales industry wide. Sustainability has become their mantra and works well with existing perceptions of what Subaru stands for. They are still selling cars.Understand the Viral Marketing OpportunityConsumer products companies must absolutely educate themselves on the ways in which purchasing has been changed by the internet. The importance of viral marketing, social networking, chat rooms, blogs and so on cannot be overstated. Understanding this world and learning how to use it is now more powerful than almost any other form of marketing. Sites like DailyCandy.com which are basically vehicles for consumer products are increasing popular and well known. They are where consumers congregate to check out what’s new and get peer to peer validation of their choices. Familiarity with these sites and an understanding of how to leverage their influence is a critical factor in today’s marketplace.Summary – Be a Conscientious Consumer ProductThe conscientious consumer is shaping the consumer landscape and should be the subject of a great deal of attention for any company wishing to sell products into this market. Cross referencing your product against the prevailing preferences of these consumers will ensure that you are presenting and projecting your offering in a way that is compelling in the context of today’s consumer culture. Learning how to reach out to consumers by being a presence in the places that we already know they are spending time on-line is critical. Finally designing a distribution strategy that optimized the opportunity for engagement with your customer will give your brand legs that will carry it forward into future opportunities. In brief – be a conscientious consumer product and move with the shifting landscape to create a continuous connection with your customer.