Introducing, the citizen consumer

New research from Edelman is wake-up call suggesting that businesses need to start thinking more about the 'purpose' behind their brand, products and services.

I'm not sure where all these people live because they are not my neighbors, but there's a new term that corporate sustainability executives and teams might want to take the time to understand when they are planning new product launches, the "citizen consumer."

That's the phrase a group of sustainability experts uses to describe the purchasing mindset of more and more people around the world, as evidenced by recent research backed by public relations firm Edelman.

According to the 2010 Edelman goodpurpose global Study, 87 percent of Americans believe that businesses should be spending at least equal time thinking about not just the interests of their own company but those of society as a whole. The study, which as handled by StrategyOne, reflects the results of interviews with 7,259 adults from 13 different countries including Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The most compelling finding is that consumers are no longer satisfied with short-term fixes by businesses, such as simply donating money to charitable causes. They are looking to buy from companies that are engaged with serious human issues, that have a deep substantive purpose, says Carol Cone, the managing director of brand and corporate citizenship for Edelman. Here are some of her prepared remarks:

"Cause related-marketing, as we know it, is dead," says Cone. "Purpose must now be engrained into the core of a company or brand's proposition. It is no longer enough to slap a ribbon on a product. It must be authentic, long-term and participatory. Americans are seeking a deeper involvement in social issues and expect brands and companies to provide various means of engagement. We call this the rise of the 'citizen consumer.' "

Like I said, this mindset doesn't really pervade my neighbors. So, I looked a bit deeper into the data for clarity. Here's some insight that clicks a bit more for me. For me this is the big one: When price and quality are the same between two different produces, the social purpose of the company or brand behind that product or service is a much more important purchase trigger than in the past. Approximately 47 percent of the Americans in the study report this as the No. 1 deciding factor, while 27 percent cite loyalty to brand and 26 percent cite design or innovation.

Personally speaking, I think there are certain status brands where that finding just wouldn't hold water, but I'm not the researcher here so I'll call upon one of the sustainability experts who took part in a briefing announcing the results of the study. That expert, Matthew Bishop, an editor from The Economist, also believes the study is somewhat aspirational. But he also envisions a time when the board meetings of public companies are streamed to company stakeholders and companies are asked to be much more transparent. "In part, these results are a backlash against the endemic problem of short-term-ness in business," Bishop says.

Here are some other key findings from the goodpurpose study:

  • 34 percent of Americans would "punish" a company that doesn't activity support a good cause by criticizing it to others (multiple that by Facebook and Twitter)
  • Consumers in emerging markets such as Brazil, Mexico, China and India) are more likely than Americans to expect the brands they support to support a good cause
  • 67 percent of the respondents indicated that they would support legislation that requires businesses to meet certain environmental standards
  • 79 percent of Americans believe it is OK for companies to make money AND support good causes, simultaneously

Note to self, it is OK to be a "citizen capitalist."

For perspective, shortly after the Edelman study was released, I received a note from BBMG, another branding firm, which had conducted a "pulse" poll about some of the same issues against their panel of socially conscious consumers called The Collective. Their poll found that over the past year, 81 percent of the panel has purchased more socially or environmentally products and services compared with the previous year. Most of those respondents looked to certification seals or labels on product packaging to help make those decisions.

Some of these same themes are explored in a new-ish booked called "Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending," written by Andrew Benett and Ann O'Reilly. Benett is a marketing communications executive with Arnold Worldwide and Havas Worldwide, while O'Reilly is with Euro RSCG Worldwide's Knowledge Exchange. The book calls on a study of seven different markets, where consumers are increasingly concerned about our obsession with consumption. Approximately two-thirds of those polled for the book believe they would be better off if they lived more simply.

To be sure, the global recession has made it simpler for people to spend less money. But the authors say that a majority of Americans have no intention of going back to their old spending habits when the economy turns around. Here's an excerpt from the book's preface:

"The impulses feeding this new, more engaged and insightful mind-set spring from a myriad of sources and are tied to countless large trends, including a growing hunger for community, the desire for vibrant authenticity and a sense of connectedness with the natural world, and the Internet-enabled upsurge in consumer empowerment. ... Shoppers may have been thoroughly, grotesquely consumed by the age of excess, but now they emerge chastened and more thoughtful, ready to partner with brands that understand their transformed needs."

Hmmm. Three different sets of research pointing to the emergence of the same thing, the citizen consumer. Are your product designers and marketers ready to meet their needs?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com