"We are entering an era when brands are choosing consumers," says Hanover's Gary Cleland

Imagine you are the chief marketing officer of a global fast-moving consumer goods company, such as a clothing or footwear brand. The business is thriving in the US and UK with ambitious plans to grow and dominate in the Middle East, China and Africa but there is one pressing question from your CEO. The company is going to throw its marketing budget behind a single, global, brand ambassador. There is a shortlist of two and the choice is yours: Donald J Trump or Greta Thunberg?

Much discussion of the relationship between brands and their consumers accepts the broad principle that consumers are the ones to make a choice and that a brand should take steps to make themselves attractive to those consumers.

This remains true, but today we live in a world of ‘affective polarisation’ – meaning that we identify strongly with our ‘tribe’ and dislike the ‘other’ tribe, even if in practice we don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of their traits or preferences.

In the UK, the obvious example is Brexit, with most individuals defining themselves as either a Remainer or Brexiteer. The reality is that moderates in rival camps have more in common on specific issues than differences. We identify as ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’ and the strength of our feelings towards ‘them’ becomes increasingly intense. Brands also face a choice along these lines. And while you may not actually be caught between the choice of using Greta Thunberg or President Trump in your brand activations, as a consumer brand you are being pushed increasingly to identify with one of those two camps.

In fact, consumers are going to demand nothing less. Two-thirds of consumers want brands to take a stand on the issues of the day.

The nuance for brands is that, although marketeers won’t express it so bluntly, this means rejecting customers as much as it means attracting them.

Rather than thinking of consumers choosing brands, we are entering an era when brands are choosing consumers. And this is an incredibly important strategic commercial decision.
Footwear brand Nike illustrates both the opportunity and risk that come with this new consumer landscape. In 2016, NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick ‘took the knee’ during the American national anthem. In the resultant cultural conversation, Nike explicitly and triumphantly backed its man. It picked a side, and knowingly faced down furious protests from the ‘others’.

Within this era of cultural, tribal self-identification, sustainability and climate is a big deal. Major brands need to pick a side.

More often than not, the decision to use a brand to champion sustainability and to restructure supply chain and logistical operations accordingly is driven from non-cynical motives, not a marketing drive.

But it’s clearly also a commercial decision, if for no other reason than you can’t do good work if you’re out of business. So a smart brand leader wants to know that the tribe it ‘chooses’ has some spending clout. That’s an opportunity that can be turned to commercial advantage.

For brands that choose a sustainable purpose, the signs are good. Last year, researchers found that sustainability was a main driver of growth for the consumer-packaged goods market. Half of that market’s growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products. Tellingly, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not.

These products win because the audience is growing – Nielsen recently found that a whopping 81% of consumers globally want companies to help fight climate change.??Unsurprisingly, this is most important to Millennials, an admittedly broad bunch of people, but one expected to have faster-rising spending power than other demographics - making them particularly attractive to global FMCG brands.

At the same time, it’s easier to be Unilever if you are the only Unilever. If everyone is in the same space, brands need another way to stand out. And a position of virtue is far easier for a disruptive new brand borne of sustainability, than it is for a heritage brand trying to make a difference. Businesses will also have one eye on China, India and Africa to see how their decisions are likely to play out there.

For all that, brands are piling into purpose and sustainability. And faced with the evidence we have, as well as the very real climate issues the world faces, that’s got to be a hugely positive development and one that could help save the planet.

• This article was originally published in 'Net Zero Unpacked: An Essential Guide for Business Strategy & Corporate Communications'. The report contains insights from leading companies such as Apple, Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Facebook, and Sky, on how businesses are acting to support Net Zero.

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