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Why marketers need to pay more attention to ethical consumers

Julie Irwin is calling on marketers to pay more attention to ethical consumers… because we’re all ethical deep down, right?

ethical consumerism

When a marketing professor / behavioural economist speaks, it’s worth tuning in to.

This time, in an article published on Harvard Business Review, Professor Julie Irwin was focusing on the behaviour of consumers when faced with ethical decisions.

She began by acknowledging that almost everyone at some point will make a purchase or take an action that is directly based on their morals and beliefs rather than their wallet.

But she continued by suggesting that marketers are letting businesses down by not playing a leading part in this consumer shift.

Irwin argued that consumers are being viewed incorrectly and that the attitude towards ethical consumerism is wrong. Her belief being that the mass market is not the one-dimensional cost-driven audience they’ve been deemed to be and that marketers need to stop seeing them this way.

“Pessimism about ethical consumerism rests firmly on the assumption that consumers have one, stable utility structure and they express that utility in their purchasing. The problem is, human psychology does not work like that—people do not have only one value for things and they do not have a stable and consistent utility structure.”

I’ve witnessed what Irwin suggests firsthand when sat in a meeting with a giant food chain. The conversation wrapped up with the following statement:

“If we were to enforce more ethical practices in the supply chain we would have to raise our products by 50c and people won’t pay. Consumers are too driven by the price point”.

If we take what Irwin says into consideration then this surely is rubbish… if changes like this were marketed effectively then all those driven away (on the back of cost) would be matched, if not outnumbered, by all those you attract on the back of ethics.

There is a massive need for better marketing and storytelling around ethical consumerism as people will absolutely let their morals influence their purchasing decisions.

This of course, is IF they are aware of what’s going on. It’s a big ‘if’ as consumers are also more than happy to not seek answers in the belief that what they don’t know won’t hurt them (or hurt the wallet).

There’s definitely some truth and rational behind the “we’d rather not know” argument though.

Think about it… do you read the back of all shampoo bottles? Do you purchase carbon offset when booking a flight? Do you refuse to get your hotel towels washed each day on holiday? Most likely you don’t as it’s not obvious enough what the consequences of these actions are. And I’m including myself here – I love fresh towels on holiday.

However, if a particular shampoo brand didn’t test on animals and proactively marketed the fact that they actually help animals, you might think twice. If when choosing a hotel to stay in, you saw that a particular venue only washed their towels every other day but provided the local community with fresh drinking water with the savings then no matter how much you like clean towels, it would be a more tempting (and gratifying) booking.

Now think about it from a story telling perspective… the hotel for example could use social media to show pictures of their community and the impact they directly have, instead of the same old stock photos used by everyone. It shows soul and most importantly it asks people to put their money where their heart is.

The key here is for marketers to make it impossible to ignore the facts around ethics and for content marketers to create stories that hero all the good things that brands do.

Instead of expecting to consumers to search for the facts, we need to create stories around them and make it blindingly obvious.

Irwin went on to emphasise the power of context, saying:

“There is ample research to match the anecdotal evidence that ethical consumer values exist, but the context has to draw them out. This is the marketer’s task”

Marketers have the power to create context with ‘good’ stories… stories that show the impact that considered choices have and the personal feel-good impact they also create as a result.

Consumers are not only ready, they want to make good choices – they just have to be shown the impact of what their decisions mean.

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