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Opinion: It’s Time to Rethink Marketing

Societal disruption has created a new type of consumer and one of the last things this consumer wants to do is consume, writes Emma Sharkey (left), chief strategy officer at Rothco, part of Accenture Interactive.

Inside boardrooms everywhere, marketing executives are running fast to stand still. The never-ending pandemic is playing havoc with 2022 planning, but it goes deeper than that. There is no sector, pillar or facet of society that isn’t experiencing massive disruption right now, and old marketing models are collapsing under the pressure.

Here at Rothco, part of Accenture Interactive, one of the biggest advertising agencies in Ireland, we’ve launched a report that looks at an awakening anarchy that people are experiencing. Not the hobnail boots and declamatory protest kind of anarchy; more slippers and meaningful conversations. But it’s still anarchy, because it’s overthrowing a lot of went before – and it’s making life hard for marketing executives.

We believe that the scale of disruption, the level of cultural and societal change, is being underestimated by brands and businesses. At Rothco, part of Accenture Interactive, we make it our business to stay ahead of the curve and we’ve launched a new report – Anarchists in Slippers – to give marketing executives an insight into a future that is rapidly unfolding.

A distinct change in consumer habits has seen a transition from materialism to experience. Conspicuous consumption no longer cuts it for a younger generation who prefer to invest in experiences such as travel – but when the pandemic closed that down, a shift was accelerated towards transformation and a search for greater personal meaning.

At the same time, our report reveals shocking levels of financial fragility in society, which further fuels what we describe as ‘transformative spending’ – purchases that are perceived to make someone a better person, not simply better off.

Trading money for meaning

People’s relationship with money has been changing since the 2008 collapse of the financial markets and the global recession that followed. In the US, the working poor are being driven to the edge by the pandemic. Christos Makridis, a computational social scientist at the Stanford Digital Economy Lab, describes “hand-to-mouth style consumption, even from people with good incomes”. Closer to home, research from the Central Bank and the NERI Institute show a decline in household incomes and an inability to pay unexpected expenses.

A slowing down of consumerism has been accelerated by a parallel pursuit of transformational lifestyles. It’s not that people won’t buy things, it’s about avoiding excess, attaching meaning to what they do buy and making a correlation between personal consumption and wider societal issues like climate change and sustainability.

A generation is growing up that is more likely to make a connection between what they consume and their carbon footprint. A kitchen appliance might instil closer connections to the food they eat. Buying plants for the garden can foster a ‘back to nature’ sensibility. After a period of relative hardship, we have seen a huge spike in transformational purchases, people spending more on skin, nail, and hair care products to feel better about themselves, or on mindfulness apps for personal wellbeing.

The big takeaway is that what we define as aspirational is changing. A different lens is required now, if we want to understand the needs of consumers. Attitude to money is one part of it, another is a sense of community.

New sense of community

Companies and brands need to find the community that is going to respond to what they are trying to sell. What we’ve seen as we explored this for our report, is evidence of people shedding relationships that don’t serve a personal need. More an act of self-care than selfishness, it’s about building communities with likeminded individuals. Not bound by geography or gender, perhaps different in more ways than they are similar, they find common ground around a particular area of interest and connect over the internet. Arguably, these are less a community and more of a personal network, and it’s too soon to tell whether they will sufficiently feed the human need for community long-term.

We have also identified behaviours quite unlike the demographics that marketing executives are used to targeting. Take the ‘modern granny’ – young people applying older behaviours to the modern world. Just like their grandmothers who diligently returned milk bottles, recycled old clothes, and lived frugally, they are re-purposing and simplifying, going back to basics albeit with modern comforts and WiFi.

A new generation is actively interested in replacing the disposable with something more durable. They feel disconnected from society and systems that perpetuate the pursuit of more and hark back to a lower impact way of way of life that is less detrimental to the planet. It is a quiet kind of anarchy and it’s gained more traction since the pandemic.

So too has the emergence of eco men. Research shows there has been a longstanding unconscious connection between eco-friendly behaviours and perceptions of femininity. Mathew Isaac, a professor of marketing at Seattle University, told us that men were less likely to engage in sustainability because it threatens their masculine identity. Euro for euro, men’s spending creates 16% more climate heating emissions than women’s according to the Journal for Industrial Ecology 2021.

There are signs, however, that this is starting to change. Young men are pushing back against the stereotypes and becoming more involved. They are trying to connect to the world around them and find meaning. Discerning brands with tuned-in marketing teams should be doing their best to help them.

Branding beyond suspicion

Where these behaviours coalesce is in climate fatalism, a pervasive fear and uncertainty about the world, an outlook that once seemed radical, but which now looks reasonable. Brands must take action to become more transparent, to make sure they exhibit the highest ethical standards throughout their supply chain, not just on sustainability but on a range of issues. Get it right and they will earn a loyal and receptive audience.

Climate fatalists are suspicious and fearful, but they are also independent and prepared. They are angry and they are becoming more active. A challenging and vocal group to engage with, one that will only respond to brands that are similarly active and transparent. As with all emerging communities, they make huge demands of companies who must behave beyond suspicion.

Green washing will be found out and damage brands. Businesses need to make sustainability goals a core purpose, a tall order that goes far beyond marketing executives. The hard truth is that when it comes to building relationships with a new generation of prospective customers, everyone in the boardroom has a role to play. And 2022 is the time to start.

To download a copy of Anarchists in Slippers report click HERE

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