Marketing in the age of the socially conscious consumer

Kevin Thompson and Matt Berry are longtime friends and colleagues, sharing a past at IBM Corporation where they had roles in shaping both Marketing and Citizenship programs. In their post-IBM careers, Kevin and Matt have continued to explore ways of combining socially conscious brand development with marketing and revenue generation goals. 


When Greta Thunberg sailed into New York Harbor in September 2019 for her visit to the U.N. Climate Action Summit with no logos on her zero-emissions yacht – these two marketing leaders were inspired to co-author a series of articles aimed at exploring our role as marketers in the age of the socially conscious consumer. Find the article series below.

Kevin B. Thompson

General Manager, Good Upworthy

digital marketing services

Matt Berry

 Founder, Conversion Marketing

Shifting marketing strategies in 2020

Companies need to draw people in and take them on a journey

In 2019, we witnessed the impact the socially conscious consumer had on marketing and advertising. At 83 million people, millennials account for a quarter of the population of the United States, making them the largest living generation. 84% of millennials don’t like traditional advertising and 58% hate advertising—and, it looks like Gen Z is on-track to mimic the same pattern.


To address these realities, businesses around the world are embracing a new type of marketing—coming to life through a range of memorable social impact campaigns. Many of these efforts have been recognized for their unique approach to making a powerful statement. In 2019, 16 of the 21 Cannes Grand Prix award winners were purpose campaigns.


In 2020 we expect to see this trend continue, but it won’t be enough. As we look to the year ahead, we’re predicting a few new trends to emerge: 


  1. Brands go from having a mission to being on a mission: Marketing on its own isn’t enough. Businesses need to focus on authentic efforts that are core to their values. In 2019, many campaigns backfired because they weren’t authentic and today’s savvy consumers aren’t having it. In 2020, look for a new wave of companies to embark on social impact missions
  2. Building the marketing organization of the future: With the socially conscious consumer comes the need for a new set of marketing and communications skills. In order to build meaningful campaigns to generate leads, businesses need to develop talent in new ways. This extends from onboarding and talent development to expanding marketing functional areas to include social impact, such as market intelligence, thought leadership, and campaign management.
  3. Performance marketing is powered by purpose-driven campaigns: Converting awareness into authentic and ongoing engagement builds your audience and their loyalty to your brand. But how do you do that? We know that companies with strong nurturing programs produce 50 percent more leads at a third less the cost; and nurtured leads produce, on average, a 20% increase in sales opportunities versus non-nurtured leads. (DemandGen Report). But, more and more people don’t want to be marketed to or “nurtured” so expect to see more companies making this shift to purpose-driven campaigns.
  4. Traditional PR as a key component of purpose-driven campaigns: PR agencies have long been tasked with building trust and relationships with key constituents – even helping to drive new programs and policies. With the rise of social media, fake news, and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s more important than ever to build and maintain trust and authenticity. In 2020, PR agencies will be instrumental in executing successful campaigns by surrounding the target audience with reasons to trust a company – today and in the future.
  5. Less talk, more listening: The socially conscious consumer wants to be heard. The problem is, many organizations are too busy running campaigns to listen. Engagement is the key to capturing this growing audience, and it starts with listening and understanding their needs. 


These are just a few of the trends we’re seeing at Conversion Marketing and GOOD/Upworthy. Together, we’re working with businesses to rethink their marketing strategies to better align with today’s consumer expectations. 


For example, GOOD is working with a global humanitarian organization to raise awareness and attract and retain new donors. We’re doing it by experimenting with different forms of storytelling and content, using performance marketing tactics to test the effectiveness and building new audience segments to nurture new and existing donors.


Conversion Marketing is working with a major technology provider to rethink how they create, nurture and progress leads. We’re doing it by building content and campaigns spanning the sales and marketing functions – creating a cohesive buyer’s journey. We’ve helped clients build effective nurture streams with consistent messaging and ‘natural’ hand-offs to increase qualified leads by as much as 30 percent.


To create a meaningful lead, companies need to draw people in and take them on a journey. Is it possible to create and run ‘purpose-driven’ campaigns designed to generate leads? Or is that wishful thinking? Any examples of campaigns that weren’t necessarily designed to create demand but turned out to be wildly successful?



How Marketers Missed Greta’s Boat

Implications of socially conscious consumers on the marketing profession

As the world watched Greta Thunberg sail into New York Harbor for her visit to the U.N. Climate Action Summit on September 23rd, there was a glaring omission – no logos on her zero-emissions yacht. Not one. She even removed BMW and Swiss wealth manager EFG International from the vessel before she agreed to sail on it.


Greta living her values and foregoing any sponsorship for her trans-Atlantic voyage is on full display. Also in the spotlight is the changing nature of marketing and how brands show up with consumers. Now, more than ever, it’s not as much what a company says or where their logo shows up. People, particularly younger generations, want to see action – not words. And that’s having an enormous impact on us as marketers. And words are clearly not enough for Greta.


In fact, public interest in corporate responsibility is on the rise: a July survey of 1,026 adults, by polling firm New Paradigm Strategy Group, found that nearly three-quarters (72%) agree that public companies should be “mission-driven” as well as focused on shareholders and customers. Today, as many Americans (64%) say that a company’s “primary purpose” should include “making the world better” as say it should include “making money for shareholders.”


From a marketing perspective, enterprises have to make similar decisions to Greta when it comes to if, how, and when to use social responsibility, sustainability and other social impact efforts to generate revenue. As marketers, this is changing our profession and how we feel about our work and the best new ways to create awareness and drive demand.


This new wave of conscious consumption, driven largely by millennials and Gen Z, is pushing companies to innovate around social causes. In today’s politically charged world, brands can’t afford to sit out of the conversation. Nor can marketing purely focused on features and functions work in this new environment. Brands need to be decisive and transparent about taking a stand on important social issues, live these values in company operations, and develop programs that contribute to the cause.


In fact, according to Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand Study, 86% of consumers believe that companies should take a stand for social issues and 64% of those who said it is ‘extremely important’ for a company to take a stand on a social issue also said they were ‘very likely’ to purchase a product based on that commitment. Let that sink in. Only 14% want the “old way”.


It’s not just Greta. Plenty of companies are abandoning traditional marketing in an effort to appeal to the socially conscious consumer. Just look at Proctor & Gamble and what they’ve done with “The Talk” and “The Look” to illustrate the unconscious bias that plagues black women and men.

And just last month, the Business Roundtable, a major corporate lobbying group and arguably the most powerful platform for CEOs, released its latest “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation”—a mission statement for the country’s publicly traded companies. For more than 20 years, every version of the document has claimed that companies exist primarily to serve the interests of their investors—which typically means making money by any means necessary and preferably lots of it. This time, however, the Roundtable dropped that language, claiming it “does not accurately describe” how corporations view their role today. The new version states that businesses are responsible to all “stakeholders” including their workers, suppliers, and local communities.  The change isn’t about altruistic belief—capitalism is shifting.


When done right, these social impact efforts aren’t just good for the world; they’re good for business, too. Unilever recently announced that its 26 Sustainable Living brands (including Dove, Lipton, Hellman’s and Seventh Generation) grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its “turnover growth”. 22 of Unilever’s 26 Sustainable Living brands are in its top 40 brands. In another study by Interbrand, companies with a purpose set on improving our quality of life outperform the stock market by 120%.


The cry for corporate social impact is being answered by businesses around the globe. But how do they ‘take advantage’ of these efforts in their marketing campaigns and demand generation?


Persuading today’s buyer is very different than in the past. Before, you could tell consumers what they should know about your product and company. Nowadays, the consumer knows everything about who you are and what you stand for. And they decide what they think.


Given all of these factors, it’s a very fine line, but how do you deliberately build demand and qualified leads – when the very premise of your brand or campaign has to be 100% authentic – or it fails, period. Can you actually nurture and progress leads without it coming across to the buyer as though they’re being marketed to? Can you turn positive perceptions of your company into demand generation and revenue?


In this series, we’ll explore different ways businesses can tap into the hearts and minds of the socially conscious, purpose-driven consumer to improve marketing tactics across the nurture process.

What’s happening to our profession?

You can’t just have a mission. You have to be on a mission.

When we think about some of the most memorable social impact campaigns, we often admire them for their unique approach to making a powerful statement.


But making a statement is no longer enough if you want today’s socially conscious consumer to pay attention and care about your brand – and you should – as they aren’t so small you can place them in the ‘other’ segment.  They’re increasingly sophisticated, voting with their wallets and sharing their decisions with their peers.


At 83 million people, millennials account for a quarter of the population of the United States, making them the largest living generation. And consider that 84% of millennials don’t like traditional advertising and 58% hate advertising (citation from the McCarthy Group).


So we’re seeing businesses shift from traditional marketing and advertising to a purpose-driven approach. Consider that 16 of 21 Cannes Grand Prix Awards in 2019 featured purpose.


Just look at Nike’s “Dream Crazy” ad with Colin Kaepernick and Proctor & Gambles “The Talk” ad – two major corporations taking a stand on controversial issues. These ads were not aimed directly at promoting products, but at addressing social issues. In the case of Nike and Kaepernick, online sales jumped 31% after the campaign launched (source).


While there’s always the very real risk of alienating audiences, there are numerous studies that show today’s consumer is looking for purpose-driven brands that they can align their values with – as a way of “voting with your dollars” to show support for a brand’s messaging outside of their specific product.


Not only are companies increasingly willing to speak up for causes they support but consumers practically demand that they do. The 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study found that “78% of Americans believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well”; and two-thirds of consumers surveyed say they would switch to a product from a purpose-driven company, and 68% say they would feel more willing to share content with their social networks from purpose-driven companies than traditional companies.


In many of these examples, purpose works for general awareness.  But how do you convert awareness into authentic and ongoing engagement that builds your audience and their loyalty to your brand?


Purpose to Progression.

Over the past five years, marketing has made huge strides in being able to show return on investment metrics from advanced analytics – with major investments in performance marketing. It’s helped to strengthen what it means to be a marketer in today’s hypercompetitive world.


We know that companies with strong nurturing programs produce 50 percent more leads at a third less the cost (Forrester report); and nurtured leads produce, on average, a 20% increase in sales opportunities versus non-nurtured leads. (DemandGen Report). But more and more people don’t want to be marketed to or “nurtured” so how do you make this shift?


While feeding the performance marketing engine – because you need to drive sales – you can’t forget about the socially conscious consumers – growing in volume and influence at rapid rates. So how do you strike this balance between driving sales and meeting the expectations of this important segment of potential customers?


Consider a credit card company, they’re trying to sell you their credit card. What makes yours better than the others? It has to be more than just a message. Consumers want to see action. So the company that’s taking a stand and action is more likely to attract new cardholders who care about purpose.


With budgets swinging to performance marketing, you can’t ignore the growing population of consumers who care about what your company stands for, and the actions they take – it’s the reality. So if you marry the two for a moment, how do you begin to turn purpose into progression? If it comes across as an ad, or a hard sell, forget it. You’ve lost them. Like so many other things today, it needs to be organic.


It starts with doing the right things for the right reasons – it has to be authentic – and part of what your brand stands for. But you also need to generate revenue. A few questions to consider:


  1. How and where do the socially conscious consumer and the measurable, nurturing tactics of performance marketing meet?
  2. How do you respond to purpose-driven consumers wanting action, not just words, from your brand?
  3. How do brands go from having a mission to being on a mission?


We would love to hear your thoughts and examples on how brands can go from words to programs that deliver against their purpose.

Next up, we’ll be featuring some short video interviews with marketing leaders and experts – and hopefully some of you – on these topics and more.

Join the Conversation with Matt, Kevin, and their colleagues over on LinkedIn.

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