How the socially conscious consumer is shifting from niche to mainstream

The header image shows hands raised in the air.

Matthew Tilley, senior director of content marketing, Vericast

The socially conscious consumer segment has been around for decades, becoming a catalyst for change. However, the cohort is no longer a niche market — it represents more and more of what mainstream consumers expect from brands. And this trend only accelerated during the pandemic, as revealed in this Vericast 2021 Consumer Intel Report

The socially conscious consumer makes mindful purchase decisions, deliberately buying ethical and environmentally friendly products. They vote for their values with their wallet. In fact, 45% said they are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

How social movements are changing brand marketing strategies

Environmental concerns have long been an issue for consumers. They remain the top consideration for socially conscious consumers. Within the range of what they’re thinking about, aside from sustainability, consumers also care about diversity and inclusivity, gender equality, poverty eradication, support for small businesses, animal protection and more. And they want to buy from brands that reflect the same values and support the same causes.

Consumers also exert power as activists, making their preferences known by their purchase decisions. This compels companies to change and to take a stand. Over the years, this social activism has given rise to specific demands for corporate social responsibility, sustainability, ethical consumerism, fair trade and conscious capitalism.

And these social movements have leveraged greater power through social media. As more people become aware of the issues, brands are even more influenced — and even pressured — to act.

Values are driving purchase decisions

Companies think in terms of consumers, shoppers, unique selling propositions, product positioning and brand personality. While these have their place and can be helpful, price, quality and value remain critical factors for purchasing decisions. However, consumers also factor in their social, health and environmental concerns into the equation.

That is because buying or consuming is only one part of who they are as humans. They want good value for their money, but they also care about values. Compared to 43% in 2019, 52% of respondents said it’s important for them to buy from companies whose values match theirs. 

And the values they care about now are increasingly about the impact they make on their family, community, country and planet. And they consider these values in making decisions about where they live, who they work for and where they buy from.

Authenticity and transparency are driving loyalty to brands

People prefer to have familiarity, consistency and connection with the brands from which they buy. They are wary of marketing messages that only play to base desires and they are distrustful of companies that project a positive image only to find out they are unethical in sourcing or production. And, they dislike greenwashing — that is, misleading marketing claims that products or business practices are sustainable when they are not.

Companies must be consistent and transparent to win people’s trust and loyalty. In the Vericast report, 76% of survey respondents said they are more likely to buy from a brand or store they trust, up from 71% in 2019, while 21% plan their in-store shopping with recommendations from family and friends. And 47% are more likely to purchase a brand that shares reviews from users.

Of course, brands need to be authentic and relatable to connect with their customers. That means their marketing messages should reflect their market — 42% are more likely to purchase from a brand or store whose ads feature people like them.

Millennials in particular are looking for brands that showcase values

The past year has been marked by unrest and tragedy. From racial injustice and climate change to the pandemic and the loss of jobs, people have become more sensitive about what they buy and from whom.

For example, based on the Vericast report’s findings, 54% of consumers are more likely to be loyal to a brand or store that shares its efforts to be environmentally responsible or can highlight sustainable and ethical business practices. And this figure is highest among millennials and millennial parents, with 72% saying so.

There is also strong support for local small businesses, many of which have been severely affected by the lockdown — 61% of consumers prefer to shop at local, neighborhood stores.

Balancing cost and sustainability

It is true that socially conscious consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products from ethical and responsible companies, and with the slow reopening of the economy, people are becoming more optimistic and are even excited to spend more. Some 18% of consumers are looking for more opportunities to treat themselves and others in their household.

However, many others have been affected financially by the pandemic. Seventy percent of those whose income was impacted in 2020 expect this to remain the case in 2021. In the wake of those impacts, 72% increased their saving behaviors during the pandemic, with 82% planning to continue to do the same in 2021. 

The takeaway? Even if they care as much about ethical, sustainable and conscious consumption, reality forces them to prioritize price. As such, brands need to be sensitive in their messaging and promotions. They should strike a balance between addressing the preferences of optimistic, socially conscious consumers and the financial needs of their cautious, budget-conscious customers.

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