The Awakening Consumer Segment, Awakening To Hard Times

Can the green movement survive red ink? We've been asking ourselves that question for the past six months, but now it seems more pressing than ever.

The answer is yes.

The reason why is the Awakening Consumer market segment. This is a group of over 49 million Americans who are awakening to the power they wield in the marketplace. Awakening to the idea that they can drive social and/or environmental change by choosing one brand over another. These are consumers with a strong sense of personal values, and they now expect the same from the companies they do business with.

In a nutshell, the Awakening Consumer segment supports brands whose values are in line with its own.

And people's values don't fluctuate with the Dow Jones. Once you're concerned about the well-being of the Earth and its inhabitants, you don't stop caring just because the value of your investment portfolio goes down. The concern for sustainability is a one-way street, and there's no turning back.



For example, in a recent g-Think survey of Awakening Consumers, 63% said they would still buy organic food, even if they lost their jobs during a recession.

This goes for corporations as well. All across the price/prestige spectrum--from Walmart to Vail Resorts--we've heard of corporations that are sticking to their sustainability commitments despite the economic downturn. I believe to do otherwise is a significant tactical error.

It looks like the economic skating is going to be tough for a while. However, this is not the time to abandon the Awakening Consumer segment. For as bleak as things may look, they will, someday, get better. And when they do, this group of consumers will be loyal to the brands that have stayed loyal to them. (And this group is nothing if not loyal.)

Also, like so many other Americans, the Awakening Consumer segment is disgusted by the corporate greed that has fueled this economic crisis. Watch for both a backlash against corporations believed to be responsible for today's economy, and an attraction to corporations and brands willing to state and stand by a strong moral compass.

Consumers face many frightening issues during a recession. In addition to the obvious credit crunch, declining home values, investment losses, unemployment and possible inflation, there's the growth of greenwashing.

Desperate times bring desperate measures, and desperate marketers may try to appeal to the Awakening Consumer market by portraying themselves as greener (or more socially responsible) than they actually are.

I've always believed there's a special circle of hell for greenwashers, and I'm concerned that hard economic times might increase its occupancy. With consumers more concerned with economic survival, they may be less inclined to expend the time and effort investigating various green claims. It is my hope that soon the government will be able to lend some assistance.

The Federal Trade Commission has been conducting hearings on how to modify its "Green Guidelines" for environmental marketing claims since early this year, but I haven't heard much from them, which makes me concerned that the process may have stalled. And given the economic bailout issues the federal government has had to deal with lately, I wouldn't be surprised.

Back in April, I sent a letter to the FTC advising them on elements to consider when rewriting the guides. Among other things, I suggested that the commission consider all aspects of a product's or service's lifecycle, including labor practices and community impact.

I suggested that the FTC let the consumer in on the process by making its ratings system transparent and widely available. Show us the inner workings of the investigation and substantiation process. We want to see how the sausage is made.

Finally, punish the greenwashers. Put them in stocks in the town square. Make them don the scarlet letter. Put them in a cage, and let us poke them with sticks. Figuratively, of course. Create a Hall of Shame on the FTC Web site that would expose marketers who make bogus environmental claims. And put their advertising agencies right up there with them. (To our advertising brethren, this is no time for us to be lazy or ignorant. We must hold our clients' feet to the fire, and make them prove the claims we're making on their behalf are legitimate. We owe the consumer that much.)

As a marketer, there are ways for you to avoid such a fate. Here's a few things to keep in mind when making sustainability claims:

1. Stick to the facts. Don't speculate. Don't contort statistics. No one likes a weasel.

2. Be honest, completely honest. Consumers don't expect you to be perfect, but you'd better be straight with them.

3. Partner with a credible NGO. It will give your work more impact, and your claims more legitimacy.

In closing, remember that while we may be facing tough economic times, they won't be this way forever, and marketers who remain true to their values will remain in the heart of the Awakening Consumer segment. And as a result, the green movement will survive the current sea of red ink.

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