Social media gives shoppers a powerful platform from which to vent frustration at business behaviour. How should you deal with the sound and fury of warrior consumers in this new consumer landscape?
Economists may view the triple bottom line as people, profits and planet. But there’s another three Ps many businesses are now grappling with: namely, placards, petitions and protests.
In the past 12 months alone, vociferous UK consumers have denounced everything from lads’ mags and internet porn to tax avoidance, Third World sweatshops and soaring energy costs. In the process, they’ve steered ever further from the familiar waters of value for money and washing machine-testing towards the choppier seas of business behaviour and its impact on society as a whole.
Whether dubbed ‘warrior consumers’ for their determination to boycott ‘guilty’ firms, or using purchasing power to further their individual beliefs, yesterday’s docile shopper has morphed into today’s shopper-activist before our very eyes. What it all comes down to, says Robert Jones, head of new thinking at the brand consultancy Wolff Olins, is a fundamental shift in the control of information from business to consumer.
“The message is getting through that people have the tools to broadcast their opinions of the commercial world within seconds,” he says. “This wresting of power is fairly terrifying for companies – many of whom wish to do as they’ve always done and keep their heads down. This is no longer an option, however.”
The entire notion of marketing to the consumer is out of date, he says; replaced by a more equitable relationship which he terms “the enlisting of consumers”.
“It involves opening up to people about how your business thinks, how it sees its role and how both producers and consumers can benefit from its activities,” he says. “While such transparency can be painful for many firms, not to do so is to invite mistrust and even hostility by already cynical shoppers.”
If any group of businesspeople is facing the sharp end of this new consumer power, it’s UK retailers. Mired last year in yet more damaging headlines – notably, concerning the human cost of the UK’s budget clothing industry and the horsemeat scandal – the nation’s shopkeepers could be forgiven for seeking different ways to make money.
Yet according to Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warrior consumerism is here to stay. “Negative publicity over particular issues is the price you pay for running a successful retail business,” he says. “Our advice to any store owner feeling sensitive now is not to expect sympathy.”
Although the business community has grown accustomed to dealing with long-established consumer organisations such as Which? or Greenpeace – and has even learned to rub along with the powerhouse that is Mumsnet, some of the organisations which made the biggest headlines last year came out of left field.
Supermarket bosses, for example, may have been totally unaware of Object – the small but formidable feminist organisation whose campaign against so-called lads’ mags in supermarkets resulted in a mass delisting of all such titles by the Co-op and triggered a debate over the ‘pornification’ of Britain as a whole.
To Opie, anticipating what’s likely to hit the consumer consciousness next is the only way to prevent PR catastrophes, but that’s far from easy. “Take horsemeat: a deliberate adulteration issue rather than
a safety one,” he says. “Our supply chain simply isn’t set up to deal with widespread fraud and the calculated circumventing of legal controls over food – although there have been suggestions that two key trends should have been identified: firstly, the changes in the value of horsemeat and secondly, the number of horses being slaughtered in Ireland.
“Neither was picked up on, and there’s no evidence things would have turned out differently if they had have been.” If the horsemeat scandal proved uncomfortably close to home, Opie believes that the spate of fires in Bangladeshi clothing factories supplying the likes of Next and Primark offer a salutary lesson in just how globally focused Britain’s warrior consumer agenda has become.
“Although labour issues are already well covered, it came as a surprise to some of our members that British consumers expect them to be concerned as much with factory buildings as with the age of the workers making the garments. The truth is that consumers increasingly expect us to go the extra mile when it comes to ethical sourcing – even if that means ensuring qualified British surveyors are drafted in to check on building safety in advance.”
Good and bad business
Predicting which campaign will have the most damaging impact on sales could be anyone’s guess, he adds wryly. “I understand food is a key concern for all consumers, but it was very noticeable that while the horsemeat debacle had an instant and disastrous effect on retailing, the Bangladeshi fire that killed more than 1,000 people had less impact long-term.”
Although there was, he says, “initial revulsion” at the conditions borne by workers who supply some of our biggest clothing chains, it was swiftly followed by a shrug of the shoulders and a return to normal buying patterns.
While alarm bells ring over the anti-business rhetoric deployed by campaign groups such as UK Uncut, for Labour MP Stella Creasy, the shadow minister for business and consumer affairs, successful businesses and empowered consumers are indivisible: “By understanding and acting on consumer rights and concerns, faulty markets can be made to work better,” she says. “The choice isn’t between being pro-business or pro-consumer; it’s simply that the two things go hand-in-hand towards the creation of a well-run firm and a fairer society for all of us.”
Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of Which?, agrees. “Consumers aren’t anti-business, they’re anti-bad business, and while companies which treat consumers fairly have nothing to fear, those that have failed us certainly have. Our recent campaigns have been about issues already high on the public agenda and while we shy away from party politics, I believe our work is intensely political.” His own form of rebellion, he admits, is to strip excess packaging from electrical goods and pile it up at tills. “I like to show retailers what I think of unnecessary packaging while I’m at the checkout and I’m glad to say I haven’t yet been escorted out of a store.”
Launched in 1989 but markedly less well known than Which? is the Ethical Consumer magazine and campaign group, currently spearheading the current boycott of Amazon over tax avoidance.
While its director Tim Hunt notes that Vicary-Smith’s organisation conspicuously avoids advocating mass-consumer action, he says that shopper militancy has a long and distinguished history
“The best examples have been of radical individuals who have achieved incredible things,” he says, citing the long-running action against Barclays Bank in the 1980s over its involvement in the (then) apartheid South Africa. “As long as there’s been red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism, there have been consumer warriors, and nowadays, it’s our everyday ethical shopping decisions, not our votes, which have become the most popular form of political participation.”
While high-profile consumer boycotts tend to be cast as anti-establishment, Hunt adds that such casual stereotypes are misguided. “There is a strand of warrior consumers who are anti-capitalist in the very red sense, and another strand who are very dark green in terms of their eco beliefs. Many others are simply active, concerned citizens of all shades of opinion. They care about value for money or energy price hikes, but cannot be classed as anti-business in terms of their philosophy.
There can be no doubt that the business community has used social media to encourage consumers to get under the skin of brands and this has led to some of them digging a little deeper into why they exist and whose purposes they serve. For Robert Jones at Wolff Olins, though, corporate soul-baring has been a reaction to the growing consumer noise, rather than a trigger for it.
“Companies used to reveal as little as possible about themselves but that no longer works. As long as the truth about your company isn’t too unpalatable, you can only gain by being honest, open and credible about what you do.” If what he terms the “age-old battle between corporations and individuals” has, he says, reached a critical stage, both sides have gained influence.
“Consumers have more communication methods at their disposal,” he says. “But while firms have suffered at the hands of online experience-sharing, they in turn have spent the past decade collecting far more sophisticated data on us than ever before. It’s a stalemate in the race for power between two opposing forces.”
While the business community is right to be in awe of the impact of Twitter et al, both consumer advocates and business lobbyists agree it’s the perfect time for a new relationship between producer and consumer to emerge.
“We’re in a post-crisis situation in which companies are having to reflect on their old practices and hopefully take steps not to replicate some of the same mistakes,” says Hunt. “This, plus the fact that they are facing a significant financial challenge from the new ethical providers is causing many of them to rethink and re-evaluate exactly how they do business with us.”
IoD Director General Simon Walker believes the key to the future relationship between brands and consumer activists is undoubtedly transparency, but he believes this will take different forms from sector to sector. “Supermarket customers need to know their meat is what it claims to be and small businesses buying financial products need to know they’re based on accurate rates. Our members can succeed by asking their customers what they want to know, and providing them with the information as early and as straightforwardly as possible.”
“Business customers and investors, too, demand increased levels of transparency from the companies with whom they deal,” he says. “Firms which refuse to behave in an open manner will suffer.”
While Walker notes that British Gas “was mocked” for running a Q&A session on Twitter soon after it raised prices, he wonders whether the firm should instead have been “commended for engaging directly” with customers. He predicts “similar incidents while companies learn how best to pursue transparency agendas” but believes that “those who get it right will benefit from greater consumer trust”.
At a time when the focus of many people’s lives revolves around the cost of living, our quest for value for money is leading to deeper questions about the entire nature and role of business.
Transparency may be a good thing, but at a time when consumer rage can go viral in a heartbeat, it may not be enough to protect a business. For that, organisations must demonstrate they’re doing positive things for society too; and nowadays, there’s no place to hide if they can’t.
Findus feels chill: How horsemeat scandal unravelled
7 Feb 2013
On the day Findus removes 380,000 frozen lasagnes from shelves, screen shots are circulated on social media of a boast on the Findus homepage: “We use only the best ingredients and a generous pinch of imagination.”
Under the headline, “Fancy some spaghetti bolog-neighs?” the Daily Mail website displays images of Findus boxes, digitally altered by online users poking fun at the manufacturer.
The Huffington Post hosts a spoof Findus commercial using the 1999 Guinness adverts that featured surfing horses.
YouGov Brand Index says the Buzz rating of Findus – a net balance of negative and positive comments consumers have heard about a brand – has fallen by 50.3 per cent from 0 before the scandal.
Figures from Kantar Worldpanel for the four weeks ending 17 February show sales of [all brands of] frozen ready meals declined by 13 per cent.
Ipsos Mori poll shows that 18 per cent of Britons will choose fewer Findus products, with 43 per cent saying they consider the company’s response to the crisis to be “poor”.
Findus UK confirms beef lasagne found to contain up to 100 per cent horsemeat would not return to shelves this year.
James Halliwell of the Grocer, writes of Findus: “Value sales slumped by 43 per cent [in 2013] as the value of the brand was decimated, spiralling from £9.5m to £5.4m.”