The New Consumers are here. They're youthful, wired, educated and mostly female—and they’re just as concerned with practical values like price, quality and convenience as they are with do-gooder values like local, organic and fair trade. These shoppers make up 30% of the U.S. population (that’s 70 million adults), and have the power to make or break brands through their powerful social networks, peer-to-peer influence and unmatched level of brand participation.
As someone who makes a living by creating and advising sustainable brands, you might expect me to be disenchanted by this news, wistful for the days when ecopreneurs could aim for ever-lasting brand success by cultivating stereotypically "dark green" shoppers. But I am emboldened. The Great Recession brings a profound reset moment. Thanks to its lingering economic and psychological effects, all shoppers are now making trade-offs. But more than any other segment, New Consumers hold the keys to scaling sustainability because they aspire to live well but openly recognize practical trade-offs every day, across spending categories. They want brands to stop marketing green and simply be green without compromising.
This is good news: it means pioneering sustainable brands like Seventh Generation, Clif Bar and Eileen Fisher [all clients, full disclosure] now have an incredible opportunity to reach a larger marketplace and help create a real green economy. We believe 21st century brands will be sustainable brands that authentically engage the New Consumer. It’s a hopeful, exciting moment, but there are no shortcuts. Here are five tips for engaging the New Consumer whose shopping basket deserves your brand:
1. Deliver Total Value
Making a product that’s good for our planet is nice, but it’s not enough. And though price is on nearly every shopper’s mind, racing to the bottom of the price heap isn’t the best strategy, either. New Consumers crave total value: products that deliver practical benefits like price and quality but that also negate their buyer’s remorse by providing societal and environmental good as well as "tribal benefits" that help them feel connected to a larger community with shared values. Brands that hit on all three categories—and effectively communicate as much—will be rewarded with the fierce and indispensible loyalty of New Consumers.
Klean Kanteen is a perfect example of total value: the reusable water bottles provide health and money-saving advantages while also reducing environmental impact. And the slick-looking bottles are seen as a badge of honor representing membership in the club of eco-minded shoppers.
2. Paint a Bigger Picture
More and more, New Consumers are asking, "What’s in it for we?" They’re thinking—and reading, and blogging, and Tweeting—about how their purchases impact their families as well as local, national and global communities. Brands will win here by closely examining their entire supply chain, and communicating the findings in an authentic way.
Patagonia sets a high bar with its "Footprint Chronicles," which shares good, bad and ugly stories about how its products are sourced, made and distributed. Gap’s FEED USA campaign failed to deliver on good intentions: A patriotic promise to donate proceeds from limited-edition bags to our nation’s school lunch programs was overshadowed by a revelation that some of the bags were made in China.
3. Be Their Champion
The DIY mindset has become a way of life for many New Consumers. They feel empowered by the knowledge that they can make their own foodstuffs or mend their own clothes; freed from a life of too much stuff. But this isn’t necessarily bad news for brands. It’s an opportunity to encourage consumers’ creativity and resourcefulness, and to create the sense of community they so desire. There’s a reason that Etsy’s profit increased by more than tenfold in three short years.
4. Make More Out of Less
The psychological shift from all-out consumerism to a simpler, more self-sufficient life also presents an opportunity to tap into the exploding "access economy." People across the nation are asking, "Do I really need this?" and instead looking to share, rent or co-own goods. Some call it "collaborative consumption." And it’s not just about saving money; it’s also about meeting fellow members of a like-minded tribe. Centralized memberships like Zipcar and Netflix emphasize access over ownership, while startups like Swapstyle and Couchsurfing also underscore community.
5. Invite Them In
Once upon a time, branding was a top-down proposition allowing companies to tell stories of their choosing to their "audience." But under today’s new marketing paradigm, participation is the new consumption. New Consumers see themselves as brands’ co-creators, champions and stakeholders. Fewer than 4% of consumers rely on advertising to verify product claims, and they’re weighing in on your practices whether you’ve asked them to or not. This means consumers—and social good—need to be woven into each part of your business cycle, through interactive platforms that allow for ongoing engagement, idea storming, conversations and feedback loops.
In other words, don’t just say it; show it. Invite consumers to suggest solutions and improvements. Take a lesson from My Starbucks Idea, Dell’s Idea Storm or Toyota’s Ideas For Good campaign, which garnered hundreds of worthy ideas while reinforcing these brands’ reputations for innovation.
Not only will co-creativity make you better prepared to face inevitable obstacles. By allowing consumers to participate in the process, you’ll be creating brand evangelicals who will help you break into the mainstream—and, just maybe, change the world.
Mitch Baranowski is a writer, producer, brandologist and aspiring honky-tonker. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of BBMG, a brand innovation firm that specializes in the intersection of branding, sustainability and social purpose.