Consumers are becoming more ethical — and that’s good for business
  • Industry Trends

Consumers are becoming more ethical — and that’s good for business

by Jackson Kushner | May 21, 2020

Over the past two decades, and especially in the past few years, consumers have grown steadily more concerned about certain pressing social and ethical issues. But awareness isn’t the only thing on the rise; activism is, as well.

Today’s typical consumer demands more from brands in terms of brand responsibility even than a consumer from 2010 or 2015. This trend is coupled with increasing coverage by the press and exposure on social media whenever a company behaves unethically. In this post, we’ll cover how the trend has not only continued but accelerated, how many brands are responding, and what it means for your brand.

Value on the rise

It’s no surprise to anyone on social media in 2020 that today’s consumer is socially conscious. Consumers routinely post to Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and even TikTok to praise or censure certain brands for their positions or actions — and such displays are only getting more common.

Statistics from Ford’s 2020 Trends Report support this idea. In the United States, 42% of consumers in the survey said they had boycotted a brand because of the brand’s values. In Europe and Asia, that number was even higher, reaching 68% in India. Over 60% of respondents claimed that they were attracted to companies based on transparency, treatment of employees, ethical values, or perceived authenticity.

Chief among these values for most consumers is a concern for the environment. As Ford’s report shows, 78% of consumers worldwide claim to be changing their behavior to fight climate change, and they expect brands to do the same.

The trend is toward even more ethical concern: 63% of respondents are “more aware of a brand’s stance on issues of gun control, immigration and issues relating to equality than [they were] in the past.”

Consumers care more — so what?

The clearest and most important benefit of this trend is that important ethical issues are acknowledged, discussed, and sometimes even mitigated. The push for companies to “go green” has created initiatives across many industries to reduce carbon emissions, invest in alternative energy sources, and clean up local environments. Likewise, WARC’s 2020 Marketer’s Toolkit reports that brands are thinking and acting more consciously regarding issues like diversity and inclusion, privacy, and hot-button social issues. Nike, for example, released a highly successful ad campaign about the controversy surrounding former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Consumers are no longer satisfied with brands that stay silent on such controversial issues; they prefer brands that take a strong stand, and this has the potential to lead to real change.

Of course, brands like Nike care about business as well as social change. But business can benefit from this shift to ethical consumerism, too. As consumers start to care more about what brands do and how they produce their products, this creates opportunities for engagement. Social media is an especially rich ground for this kind of interaction, as it gives brands a wide variety of options for voicing moral views:

Organic posts

Organic social media posts are probably the easiest way for brands to signal their moral positions to consumers. Companies consistently post comments on and reactions to current events, but it doesn’t always have to be so explicit. For example, take this post by Target:

By showing a little love for their employees, the brand signals to consumers that it cares about the people who work there. Target doesn’t have to say, explicitly, that they support their employees; instead, they publicly show their support.

Ads

Ads are another way to engage ethical consumers. Brands consistently tout their own distinctly moral attributes in their paid advertising. Take Goldman Sachs, a company that hasn’t always had a sterling reputation among consumers, but which has worked hard in recent years to improve its public perception. The brand uses a paid ad on LinkedIn to communicate its commitment to mental health:

Goldman Sachs Mental Health Paid Advertisement

Ads like this one are effective not because they sell a particular product, but because they engage the viewer emotionally. This fits well with a recent trend of companies using a more casual, human touch in their social media and customer service departments. (See how to follow suit here!)

Groups and communities

Organic posts and paid ads aren’t the only place companies engage consumers on social media. Another excellent way to demonstrate shared interests with consumers is to interact with them in online groups and communities. Take this group on Facebook, which is committed to ethics in the fashion industry. Companies can go to places like this in good faith to share ideas, interact with consumers, and most importantly, learn what people care about.

Online brand communities are also great places to highlight a company’s focus on ethical initiatives. For example, here is a post by USAA, in their own brand community, to announce being recognized as one of the world’s most ethical companies.

Now, not all groups and communities allow business accounts on their Facebook or LinkedIn pages — but this doesn’t stop many brands from participating. The ability to engage on this more personal level is an excellent reason for a brand’s executives and even employees to get more involved on social media. These people can share articles and tell stories about all the good work that their brands do, or how their brands are adapting in response to issues of justice or sustainability.

What this means for your brand

Each brand is poised to practice ethical behavior in its own way. Bombas, a sock company, famously donates socks and other supplies to the homeless — one pair donated for every pair sold. (Toms, a shoe company, has been doing something similar for years, and recently started contributing to COVID-19 relief efforts.) If your brand manufactures software instead of socks, you might not be in a position to do this. But this doesn’t mean you can’t give back. Consumers demand, at a minimum, an awareness of and intentionality about internal practices. Ask yourself some (possibly tough) questions:

  • Does your brand harm the environment?
  • Are your employees happy and safe? Can they support their families?
  • Do your business partners, sister brands, and other affiliates generally behave ethically?
  • Should your brand have a position on social issues like marriage equality and immigration?

The answers to these questions, if they’re good, can supply rich content for social media posts, both from your brand’s account and from executives’ accounts. But ethical behavior doesn’t stop at internal practices. You can also ask some important questions about external practices:

  • Does your brand use its expertise and resources to help those in need, like Bombas?
  • Does your brand donate to charities? Which ones?
  • Does your brand have flexible policies like late payment or loan deferment?
  • Is your brand’s advertising inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds?

Likewise, these answers make for excellent content that will help you increase engagement online. You don’t have to donate millions of dollars or start your own foundation to be considered an ethical brand. You simply need to show that you’re doing your part both internally and externally.

Today’s consumers often see themselves as participating in a moral community that works together to better the world. Show them you’re part of that very same community. Above all, prioritize sustainability, treat employees with kindness and empathy, and be intentional and proactive about your impact on the world.


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