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Adapt or Die: Mindful, Smarter Consumers Will Force Changes to PR, Warns Expert

Naomi Troni
Roxanna GuilfordBlake’s exclusive interview this week: Naomi Troni, Global CMO, Euro RSCG Worldwide

Hyper-consumerism has been replaced by smarter, more mindful consumption, according to research from Euro RSCG Worldwide. Failing to recognize this historic shift can be costly to your clients—and you. Changes in consumer consciousness are driving changes in consumption—just look at the Slow Food and Slow Travel movements or, more common, the trend toward buying local and green, says CMO Naomi Troni. It’s not that we’ve turned in to a nation of ascetics. We’re still buying, just more thoughtfully.

Mindful consumption is multifaceted, she explains, incorporating everything from product heritage/provenance to corporate social responsibility, safety to durability—and so are the approaches brands have been taking to speak to the four paradigms of the New Consumer:

1. Embracing Substance (pushback against shallow, nobrow culture),
2. Rightsizing,
3. Growing Up (taking personal responsibility for finances, impact of consumption choices,
etc.),

4. and Purposeful Pleasure (looking for longer-term satisfactions from purchases rather than instant but fleeting gratification).

Troni discussed some of these themes in her "Barks and Bites" column two weeks ago; this week, she delves more deeply into the issue, giving specific examples of who’s getting this right. Here, she talks about the identity of the New Consumer, where the Tea Party fits in, costly PR missteps—and why "conscious consumption" still means she’s going to buy her shoes.

What does the New Consumer look like?

When we talk about the New Consumer, we’re talking about two interrelated aspects: the "smarter" consumer and the more "mindful" consumer. By "smarter," we mean that modern consumers have more access to information and more tools with which to even the playing field between themselves and retailers/manufacturers. Internet access over the last decade or more has enabled them to make smarter consumption choices by comparing prices and seeking out discounts online, reading consumer and expert reviews and ratings, and researching the companies behind the products in their consideration sets.

By more "mindful," we mean the shift we’re seeing—and have been tracking for a few years now—toward a more conscious form of consumption. Thanks to all the discussion of climate change and "personal carbon footprints," people are much more aware that what they choose to buy or not to buy has an impact that’s felt beyond their own lives. As has been said before, what you buy is your vote on what exists in the world. Increasingly, people are choosing to consume in a way that helps other people and communities (e.g., Fair Trade, buying local) and minimizes the harm caused to the planet (e.g., recycled, organic).

This smarter, more mindful New Consumer crosses age groups and markets, though there is a skew toward leading-edge influencers (whom we call Prosumers) and women. Female shoppers and Prosumers are embracing the new mindfulness to a greater extent than are male and mainstream shoppers. However, it’s really a question of degree, and even mainstream males are showing a shift away from hyper-consumerism and toward a more conscious approach to consumption.

Are these changes a function of the recession? Are other factors involved?

The recession accelerated the movement, but it was in play long before. For some years now, people have been exhibiting signs of discontent with hyper-consumerism. We can see the rejection of mindless excess in such things as the simplicity movement, the mainstreaming of eco-consciousness. In recent years, people have become more conscious about what they’re buying for a number of reasons: They’re paying more attention to the companies whose products they buy because of concerns over corporate behavior and also because companies now play a larger cultural role. In many ways, we look to companies to fix the problems that governments seem incapable of addressing.

Earlier research by Euro RSCG found that 74 percent of consumers surveyed in the U.S., U.K., and France believe businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving positive social change. That’s a big responsibility. Our greater reliance on corporations has made us more interested in them and has caused us to pay more attention to the companies from which we buy. The huge debate over climate change/global warming has also served to turn environmentalism into a mainstream concern. And fears related to both the environment and personal health led to organics and natural foods moving out from fringe niches and into the mainstream. That had all been going on well before the recent downturn.

What the recession did was bring these shifts in mindset to a head. When people are anxious about their futures, they tend to reassess, to think about what they could and should be doing differently. And when they have less disposable income—or simply fear they are at risk of reduced circumstances—they become even more mindful about what they are buying and the priority of various "things" in their lives. For many, the downturn has served to solidify feelings that were already present and has acted as an added push toward what we have termed rightsizing—making a conscious effort to consume no more nor no less that one genuinely needs.

It gave people a chance to really think about what matters: In every country we surveyed but Japan and the Netherlands, a majority of consumers said the recession has served to remind people of what’s important in life—and that that’s a good thing. This attitude is most prevalent in the buy-buy-buy U.S., where 65 percent of mainstream consumers and 73 percent of Prosumers agreed with the statement.

Your research finds that New Consumers seek toalignwith brand partners who share their personal values. And yet, we see the population divided—perhaps more than ever—along political lines. Can you speak to that?

Politically, the population is divided; there’s no question about that. Our survey showed that the way in which those divisions are being expressed is of concern to people: More than six in 10 of our U.S. respondents say they worry we are losing the ability to engage in civil debate, that people simply are not as willing to consider other points of view anymore. And that’s an enormous problem at a time when issues are increasingly complex and require concerted efforts to collaborate.

Although we didn’t segment the survey samples by political identities, our feeling is that the issues underlying New Consumerism cut across political ideologies and affiliations. The person who is opposed to increased governmental regulation regarding greenhouse gas emissions may be the very same person who chooses to buy paper towels with recycled content for his or her own household. In the U.S., there has been a tendency to frame environmentalism as a concern of the Democratic Party, but I think that’s far too simplistic. Even people who think global warming is a farce can react with horror to the immensity of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or be concerned by the levels of waste created by their own households.

Which organizations are doing a good job of communicating to the New Consumer? What are they doing right?

Let me give you a few examples of what Euro RSCG’s clients have been doing:

  • The notion of rightsizing lies at the heart of this ad from Charles Schwab: "There are 17,000 mutual funds out there. How about seven that are right for me?" Industries considered inherently complicated—such as finance and healthcare—are particularly suited to a rightsizing approach.
  • Our campaign for The Atlantic played up the theme of responsibility as part of a broader effort to encourage more serious and substantive thinking and conversation. The campaign—called "Think. Again."—was built around thought-provoking questions designed to intrigue consumers, such as "Which religion will win?" "Is Google making us stupid?" and "Do we consume too much?" On a website, videos showed ordinary people commenting on these various questions, which had been posted in big neon letters in public places. "Our minds, dulled by sound bites and trivia, trudge along, unchallenged and unsatisfied," the site explained. "This is why we started The Atlantic Project: to illuminate questions that provoke us all to challenge assumptions, to get better answers, and to think again." The campaign targeted the person who seeks more substantial pleasures and who, amid a culture of triviality and silliness,
    is ready to be a grown-up.
  • Euro RSCG PR client Sears won this year’s Peter Glen award for their Sears’ Heroes at Home program, which provides outreach to active U.S. soldiers and veterans. In the initial stage of the program, the company repaired and modified the homes of wounded soldiers. Last year, Sears introduced a new component allowing soldiers to create an online wish registry over the holiday season to which Americans were encouraged to contribute. (And they did, donating $8 million to make the holiday season a little brighter for thousands of military families around the country.) This effort is important not just because of the great benefit to the soldiers and veterans, but also because it enables Americans to actively support a cause that’s close to their hearts. It gives them a tangible way to make a difference in the lives of these men and women who have sacrificed for the country. The New Consumer survey found that 57 percent of Americans—and 72 percent of leading-edge Prosumers—would like to be part of a truly important cause.
  • In Europe, Ikea is speaking to the New Consumer’s desire for durability/reliability, trust and tradition with its Silver Service wedding campaign. All newlyweds who buy a kitchen in 2010 and are still married 25 years later will receive a brand new one for free in 2035. The retailer also is encouraging its customers to download its catalog app, which lets them peruse all 382 pages of its latest catalog without killing any trees.

What else should companies be doing? What are they doing wrong?

Many companies have been slow to recognize just how much power and influence the New Consumer has. They seem to think they can still get away with obfuscation and incomplete truths. And they don’t seem to realize how tired many consumers are of being consumers—of the constant push to buy and upgrade and replace. As marketing professionals, we need to tap into these very strong desires for more substance and meaning, for a return to nature and authenticity, and for the sort of communalism that has been all but absent in our increasingly divided worlds. We need to offer opportunities for rightsizing and collaboration and community, and we need to do it in a way that treats our audience as thinking human beings rather than as wallets with legs.

What lessons should PR professionals take from these finding?

We need to be more transparent, plainer speaking and offer less flash and more substance. We also need to understand that for every "no," we need to offer an even bigger "yes." The consumers in our studies have shown a real hunger for change, for rejecting mindless excess in favor of a more conscious—and conscientious—way of consuming and living.

That doesn’t mean we are turning into a society of ascetics. Far from it. People are cutting back on their consumption, attempting to increase their savings and being more mindful about what and where and why they buy because it makes them feel good. Buying less reduces clutter and, hence, stress and anxiety. Buying "green" makes them feel good about the role they’re playing (however small) in minimizing environmental damage. Buying local gives them the sense of community they so strongly crave. Buying organic and natural products gives them a sense of greater connectedness to nature and to the greater simplicity and authenticity of earlier times. It’s our job to help the New Consumers feel good about making the choices they believe to be right for them, other people, and the planet.

Are you a New Consumer? Do these finding reflect your own reality? If so, how? If not, why not?

We’ve talked about how the New Consumer is made up of two interrelated aspects: the "smarter" consumer and the more "mindful" consumer. I’m definitely of the "smarter" consumer mindset and relish the way I can use the Internet to access information during the purchase process. For example, with consumer electronics purchases—an area I don’t know that much about—I’ll always search the Web and read blogs to check out reviews of products to help me make the most informed decision, and then do a comprehensive search to make sure I’m getting the product I’ve decided upon at the best price. I actually enjoy it and love being able to tell people afterwards about the great price I’ve secured for a specific item.

In terms of being a more "mindful" consumer—well, I definitely try. I love shopping on the weekends at the little farmers market near where I live in the West Village; I enjoy the experience, the community feeling it engenders, and, yes, it makes me feel good that I’m supporting local producers. I feel like I’m much more aware of the purchases I make, and that they are more considered—apart from in one area: I must admit when it comes to shoes, all mindfulness and conscious consumption goes out the window.

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