Complementary Studies Provide Glimpses into Consumers' Minds During Most Difficult Year in Modern History

Originally published on Sustainable Brands Japan (Feb. 3, 2021)
Amidst the uncertainty of the world during a global pandemic, two key pieces of 2020 research offered hope and optimism about what purpose-driven brands can achieve in 2021 — buoyed by new attitudes, opinions, and desires from consumers.

In a year like no other in recent memory , 2020 inspired and informed countless consumer research studies — the findings are largely shaped by what was top-of-mind for individuals during the COVID-19 crisis. Did sustainability concerns make the list?

We caught up with Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan whose 2020 Healthy & Sustainable Living Study revealed the attitudes of 27,000 people in 27 countries; and Etienne White, VP of Sustainable Brands™' Brands for Good initiative which continues to measure consumer progress against adopting sustainable behaviors, as part of its Socio-Cultural Trend Tracker.

What is your current assessment as to where the world sits right now and progress toward meeting the world's big challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss?

Chris Coulter: Well, according to a relatively quick survey we did of a group of sustainability leads, there is a middling sense that the resourcing of sustainability functions might be compromised in 2021 because of budget restrictions and uncertainty.

But in every other dynamic — from investors and the ESG movement to civil society — it's ready to explode. The Decade of Action will be combined with the Decade of Activism. As soon as COVID is done, there's going to be this pretty intense expression from civil society of the direction we're going.

The sustainability agenda is accelerating at a much faster pace than at any other time over the past few decades. All the drivers, for the first, are all working together like gears in a watch — with all of these different pressure points reinforcing each other, rather than hindering. The sand that we had in those gears, historically, has washed away.

Etienne White: I agree with you broadly, Chris. However, I think we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about where consumers are at right now: in a place of fear. The research we did in August showed that 56 percent of US consumers fear personal death, 73 percent of people fear leaving home for essential errands, and 59 percent fear losing their jobs.

When we asked them whether it's more difficult or easier for them to be sustainable right now, 59 percent say that COVID has made it harder to make sustainable choices and 55 percent say the economic landscape has made it more difficult for them to live a sustainable lifestyle.

So, this moment we're in is not without some really acute challenges.

So, at a time when people are worried about their jobs and putting food on the table, sustainability and lifestyle choices may fall down the priority list. We had a similar situation back in 2008, when the economic crash saw sustainability take a hit. What's the main difference between then and now?

EW: COVID has served to magnify and amplify many of the fractures that were already there. But it's helped to educate people, too.

Our research revealed that 75 percent of mainstream US consumers say COVID has made them more aware of global issues. We've seen a groundswell around racial justice, with 57 percent of people saying they won't support a company or brand unless it supports racial justice.

About ten years ago, consumers defined sustainability by environmental actions, with social actions being seen as far less critical for us to solve. This summer, we asked: "Which is more important to address: social or environmental issues?" 71 percent of people said "both equally" and 76 percent said the two issues are intertwined. You will not solve one without also, in tandem, addressing the other.

That's such a big "aha moment" for all of us — that mainstream consumers now fully understand that this represents a significant change, it is also an incredible opportunity for brands.

CC: It's hard for individuals to articulate the specificity of this, but I think that people intuitively get it — which speaks to the broad wisdom of the crowd, which is great.

All of these attitudinal measures have improved in an important way. In 2014 in the US, for example, a year before the Paris Agreement, 61 percent of Americans thought climate change was a "very serious" or "serious" issue. Now that figure has increased to 81 percent — a 20-point increase in six years.

Since 2019, there's also been an eight-point increase in people believing that we need to consume less to preserve the environment for future generations. And there's been a nine-point increase in people saying, "I want to reduce the impact that I have on the environment by a large amount." That's a big deal. Those shifts don't usually happen at that scale in just 12 months.

What can brands learn from this?

CC: Well, interestingly, 46 percent of consumers across the world say, "What's good for me is not often good for the environment." So, that inherent trade-off among people thinking that stuff they want, or want to do, has a negative impact on the environment, is a big deal — and a big opportunity for brands to bust that myth, and also showcase how it could be different.

When there's a perception of difficulty in shifting one's behavior, there's very little interest in doing that. Sometimes we embrace the complexity — like circularity, for example — as a thing that's kind of cool. But consumers look at that and say, "That is just way too difficult for me to understand, so I'm going to ignore it for a while."

EW: That's right, brands need to make it easy. Target in the US, like many other retailers, just had mini online holiday gift shops. You can look at "gifts for him," "gifts for her," "gifts for your kids." But they also had "gifts that support Black-owned businesses." It's super simple; and I know that my purchase is actually able to make a difference. There's no preaching to me about it.

Brands that are succeeding are the ones that make it very simple, and who recognize that the education job, for the most part, has been done. Consumers understand very well what it is we need to do. We don't need to see any more marketing with forests burning or people protesting. We don't need the problem explained to us. And creatives have a tendency to keep dramatising the problem, instead of focusing on solutions. When we overstate the problem we risk alienating consumers by pushing them to the point of ambivalence or disenfranchisement. If the challenge seems too vast to be solved, no one is inspired to try.

The pandemic has hit businesses really hard. There will be lots of brands looking at your research and thinking, "Actually, we know that the consumer is shifting." But there will be pressure, once the world goes back to normal, to start selling lots and lots of stuff again. What's your prediction for what might happen after the pandemic?

CC: There's an interesting connection between what's happened politically and what's happening in consumers' lives that reinforces some of the positives — including the green recovery in the US and in Europe, and with a new Biden administration incoming.

One of the key pieces of the puzzle is the idea of free ridership. We can have our hearts oriented toward a more sustainable lifestyle; but part of our head is very rational in saying, "Well, if I'm going to invest in Tesla — but I'm surrounded by people who are driving Hummers — it doesn't matter what I do."

But there's a global phenomenon of sending all of the important signals to consumers that the future is inevitably more sustainable. That's exciting.

We asked a question in our June survey about "building back better" post-COVID. At a macro level, 55 percent of the world wants to build back the economy in ways that address climate change and inequality compared to 45 percent who said they want to go back to normal.

What's startling is how different that response is. So, in countries in Latin America and Europe in particular, there are majorities — 60-70 percent of people say they want to build back better. But in most of South East Asia, you've got majorities who believe in getting right back to where we were.

How do you ensure that your research is hearing from the broadest possible demographic, including those from low-income households?

EW: We were very deliberate in our research here in the US. We could have quite easily done it with a panel of 1,000 consumers to be able to glean the information and baselines we needed. Instead, we invested and went out to 3,700+ US consumers because we wanted to be able to get a really broad and deep understanding.

This allowed us to splice and dice in a granular way and still have good base sizes to trust the insights we were getting. Specifically we looked at the data by race, so that we could look at the differences between Blacks, Latinx, Asians, and whites. We also looked carefully at political affiliation, gender, region, and age.

CC: We adopt an inclusivity approach, too, to listen to those voices that maybe get drowned out or aren't as easy to pick up.

More broadly, the sustainability community has lots of work to do in trying to understand where different voices and different perspectives and backgrounds fit into sustainability. Right now, it's really a very white industry.

Is there too much emphasis placed on Millennials and Gen Z being the beacons of hope among consumers when it comes to behavior change?

EW: Well, America's youngest adults don't come with wildly different sustainability intentions or actions than their older cohorts. And when we asked people, "Do you always or often try to behave in ways that protect the planet, its people, and its resources?" we find that 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds say they do and 39 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds report that they do. But the leading group is the 35- to 44-year-olds — that was at 45 percent.

Our research surfaced some of the myths about sustainability that need busting. The idea that it's only the younger generations that are truly championing sustainable behaviors is not at all accurate.

CC: We released a study with BBMG in late 2020 called Radically Better Future: The Next Gen Reckoning which shows that younger generations across the world are looking for brands to be more transformative when it comes to social and environmental issues. There is a thirst for something more exciting and dynamic from the marketplace among younger people.

In communications, how do brands get that balance right between focusing on the doom and gloom, and the positive stuff?

EW: I started my career working in global ad agencies, so seeing this shift that we're finally beginning to witness now, is a wonderful thing.

Everyone is very well aware of the issues we face. As our research showed, people are even aware of the societal pieces that need fixing and the interdependence of them with our environmental challenges. So, the job of creatives now is inspiring action and imparting information in ways that feel actionable and accessible. Helping brands achieve this is one of the key areas we are working on in Brands for Good.

So, let's wrap up by talking about the next iteration of research coming in 2021. What can we expect from the next 12 months and what do you expect from your next round of consumer research?

EW: Our large research effort is annual and will happen again in 2021, we also field quarterly "Brands for Good" pulses, where we get to dig deeper into the "whys" of some of the insights we receive from the main study.

We're also looking specifically at how well brands are doing at closing the intention-action gap, most especially we're tracking the progress that our Brands for Good partners are making. We've come up with a list of the nine most impactful sustainable behaviors that brands and consumers can work on together — that will mitigate against the coming climate crisis, and help foster an inclusive and resilient society. We have a suite of tools, research and workshops that can help brands accelerate mainstream consumer behaviour change towards the adoption of sustainable lifestyles. The Brands for Good program has doubled in size in the last year as more and more brands recognise that sustainability is not just a business imperative, but also a competitive advantage. I predict we'll see yet more brands join, with perhaps a greater velocity, in 2021.

CC: We'll be doing lots of consumer research with different companies and brands as part of their ongoing proprietary stuff. But we'll also have another round of global surveys on healthy and sustainable living in June, which will hear from people in 30 countries.

And there will be some tracking of some trends, too — as well as some modelling to try and understand how to further unlock sustainable behavior change.