Rarely do we see a consumer trend take hold and spread at such a fast pace as ethical consumerism. It has penetrated our culture, and we are constantly being urged to change our ways, whether it’s by becoming more environmentally aware, buying fair-trade, saving animals or even feeding our children a more nutritious diet. Headlines such as “Cars are destroying the planet and can seriously damage your health” (MW September 27) don’t shock so much as resonate.
As a society, we love to consume, but more of us are looking to balance this with doing some good. At Coley Porter Bell, we use the phrase “Desire and Virtue” to define this behaviour. But what is driving this phenomenon? What does it mean for brands? How can they successfully buy into it and what does the future hold?In a changing world, where globalisation and isolation sit together, we feel a bigger responsibility for issues beyond our own doorstep. There’s a need to separate ourselves from what we perceive as “bad” and adopt more virtuous behaviour. In the same way that drink-driving went from “naughty” to “evil”, so is smoking, owning a dangerous dog or having overweight children.
Today’s consumers are demanding shoppers who expect a great deal from what they buy. Brands have to deliver in terms of promise, aspiration, desirability and functionality – but that’s not all. Consumers now also want brands to give something back. Doing good has become both appealing and fashionable.
In the past, ethical buying meant standing by your convictions, even if it meant sacrificing style, comfort or performance, and paying a premium to do so. It was about a compromise between desire and the urge to do good. Truly ethical buying can never be mainstream, because it’s too absolute. Consumer and brand have to be good through and through, which inevitably involves sacrifice – and that’s why it has remained the domain of a consumer sub-group. However, the mass movement towards ethical consumerism is placing demands on brands to offer goodness in an accessible way, without compromise and without sacrifice.
These days mainstream consumers expect brands to deliver an element of virtue too, without conceding on appeal. The key lies in harmony between desire and virtue – not one or the other.
Being virtuous can be a powerful driver for both purchase and loyalty, but it must be credible to a brand’s distinctive essence. Virtue has to be intrinsically linked to the offering, not merely a veneer added for effect. While environmental friendliness is the issue of the day, there are several paths to virtue to consider, be it charity, health and well-being or even ideals. The key to identifying the right path to virtue for a brand is by staying true to its essence.
Who is doing what?
The most talked about issue of the day is environmentalism. One brand that went down this path is LG. It created the first steam-operated washing machine, an environmentally friendlier way to do laundry. Cleverly it also thought about the consumer’s home environment too and teamed up with Designers Guild to create wallpaper-style imagery to adorn the machines. Design-conscious consumers can improve their home environment and the planet at the same time. Other brands tackling such issues include Ariel, with its campaign to convert us to wash laundry at 30 degrees, saving 40% of energy consumption.
A different path to virtue is charity. Generations of mothers have trusted Pampers as the undisputed expert in babies worldwide, so its alliance with UNICEF to fund tetanus injections for newborn babies and vulnerable mothers makes total sense. Mums can worry less about used nappies piling up in landfill sites when they know they’ve helped save human lives. Or there’s MAC, the make-up brand which stands for glamorous, sexual confidence, and is the antithesis of soft, feminine beauty. Its path to virtue is raising money for a different kind of cause – people with HIV and Aids.
Health and well-being is uppermost in importance for consumers, and again this path is well-trodden. Green & Black’s has always taken the virtuous path, but only found fame and fortune when it became desirable. Sales rocketed when it repositioned from a niche, worthy, fair-trade and organic brand to one of indulgent luxury. It is now one of the fastest growing confectionery brands, enticing us with pure, organic ingredients in simple, dark, tasteful packaging. Delicious chocolate, free from trans fats and other nasties – surely that’s the key to desire and virtue. And, of course, there’s the healthy face of convenience food, Pret, which prides itself on freshness and has banished additives from all food and drink.
The final path to explore is that of ideals. When a brand enters consumers’ hearts and minds by enrolling them in a cause or concern, its status is elevated way above the products it sells. Such is the case of Dove, inviting us to join its campaign for real beauty.
By challenging stereotypes and conventions, Dove makes us confront our negative perceptions and helps us feel better about ourselves. It runs a Dove Self Esteem Fund, helping young women develop confidence about their body shape. All this and a desirable brand that appeals to a broad range of women. Another example, at the luxury end of the scale, is fashion designer Stella McCartney, who refuses to compromise her ideals by not using leather in her accessories range.
Working in harmony
So there are a variety of paths to virtue, not one set route. The key to success lies in identifying which is most true to your brand essence, and its strengths. The notion that desire and virtue are at odds has now become outdated. If brands don’t act quickly to combine both traits they’ll get left behind. And, above all, in seeking the right path to virtue, the power of desire must never be forgotten.