Do customers connect with cause?

Do customers connect with cause?

Customers might be taking note of sustainability, but are they ready to take action?

Cause-related marketing – the cooperative efforts of a for-profit business and a non-profit organisation - certainly isn’t new. American Express first coined the term in 1983 when they campaigned to restore the Statue of Liberty. Indeed, we’ve been talking about ethics in marketing for perhaps even longer than that, and now more than ever. The latest development in a long line is sustainability in marketing – in fact, in 2019 alone, we have covered stories of plastic-fighting initiatives from supermarkets, sustainable fashion and increased regulation, developments that have arisen in what’s being called the “Blue Planet effect”.

As these are undoubtedly issues of public concern, businesses need to take note. Collins Dictionary named ‘single-use’ the word of the year for 2018, with ‘vegan’ and ‘plogging’ (the act of combining jogging with litter picking) following closely behind on the list of words on the rise. Supporting this announcement, Collins said, "From plastic bags, bottles and straws to washable nappies, we have become more conscious of how our habits and behaviours can impact the environment,” whilst citing a four-fold increase in the usage of the word since 2013 and recognising Blue Planet II’s role in this renewed interest.

However, while consumers might be discussing the need for environmental sustainability at length, are they ready to act on it?

Going beyond plastic

In the sea of announcements that supermarkets are cutting down their plastic usage, there are equally regular headlines that retailers are bringing vegetarian and vegan products to market in response to increasingly “flexitarian” British customers. From Iceland to Sainsbury’s, Burger King to McDonald’s, Wagamama to Pret a Manger, there seems to be few stones unturned by this movement.

What was once thought to be a fad, veganism has carved itself a niche on social media over recent years and is now rapidly moving into the mainstream – bolstered not only by vegans themselves but by those looking to incorporate plant-based meals into their diet for health or environmental reasons. Marketing here has an interesting balance to strike. The ‘vegan market’ are heavily invested in the benefits of the lifestyle choice, and therefore more comfortable with the higher price points and fewer options. Conversely, capturing the cash of those consciously reducing meat intake seems a greater challenge – but a significant opportunity, too, with a third of Britons stopping or reducing meat intake and 21% identifying as flexitarians. Indeed, Greggs’ vegan sausage roll is lauded with being partially responsible for their impressive sales surge of 9.6% in the seven weeks to 16 February.

However, the newfound flexibility of consumers has not come without teething problems. In their rush to integrate vegetarian and vegan products into their product offering, some supermarkets have come under fire for poor store segmentation, in instances where these products have been listed under ‘Healthier choices’ despite high levels of sugar, salt or saturated fat. The much-praised Greggs’ Quorn sausage roll, for example, contains nearly a gram of sugar, while its pork counterpart has none. Moreover, Marks and Spencer’s ‘Plant Kitchen’ range has raised concerns for labelling vegan products as unsuitable for those with milk or egg allergy sufferers due to the possibility of allergens coming into contact with the food during production.

Retailers must be mindful that, in the same way that a product being vegan is not a guarantee of healthiness, slapping the word vegan on a product is not a guarantee that consumers will be inspired to purchase. This is an increasingly complex and competitive market that needs careful consideration – and careful treading.

Does purpose pay?

If consumers want to make positive choices about the products and services they use, it seems logical that businesses should take steps to make these choices as readily available as possible, and this will in turn pay dividends. It appears, however, that it is not always so…

News broke this week that independent coffee chain Boston Tea Party’s sales have fallen by £250,000 since it banned single use cups less than a year ago. The ban saw customers needing to bring a reusable cup, drink in or pay a deposit on a cup they can later return if they wished to purchase a drink from the chain – this, in turn, cut their usual £1m sales in takeaway coffees by 25%.

The firm confirmed that they had lost ‘passing trade’ from those who are simply in it for convenient coffee, but postulated that the ban had in fact strengthened ties with customers who support the cause and increased loyalty in this regard. In a more physical sense, they have stopped at least 125,000 cups going into landfill – surely a fact to be applauded.

Regardless of whether you’ll be stopping by one of their 22 stores around the UK to pick up a non-disposable coffee, this does raise an interesting question for marketers regarding intent and execution. In this case, whilst Boston Tea Party have certainly made a positive environmental step, has their execution hindered its impact? Moreover, might those supposedly saved 125,000 cups ended up in landfill anyway, having been purchased from one of Boston Tea Party’s many competitors? If so, does it pay to lead the way with environmental initiatives, if there are reasons your competitors aren’t?

Either way, they won’t be the last. Only this week, Morrisons announced that they will start selling paper shopping bags – having phased out 5p carrier bags in the last year - from May, following customer concerns about plastic use. Morrisons marketing director Andy Atkinson explained, “Our customers have told us that reducing plastic is their number one environmental concern so introducing the paper bag across the nation will provide another way of reducing the plastic in their lives.”

Whilst the success of this initiative remains to be seen, a 2011 report by the Environment Agency found that customers would have to use a paper bag three times to have less of a global warming impact that conventional single-use bags. In the first instance, paper bags require more than four times the energy to manufacture than plastic bags. This begs the question; is it part of an overall strategy, or simply a short-term solution to cash in on a trend? In either case, its positive impact could well be limited. 

Ultimately, it might well come down to convenience. How many of Boston Tea Party’s potential customers would likely have been turned away simply for forgetting their reusable cup? In this case, reward rather than reprimand might have been a more effective approach – if customers were, say, privy to significant discounts if they brought reusable cups. However, might they then have been accused of not going far enough? Boston Tea Party confirm this: when they launched a 25p off a reusable cup scheme, only 5% of customers took it up.

It certainly seems clear that the sustainable route – whilst it may be applauded by consumers in principle – will continue to be the road less travelled unless the convenience and the price matches or betters its ice-cap-melting counterpart. Getting to a place where these options are both convenient and cost-effective, however, is a much bigger battle.

Making sustainable sacrifices

Will it always be the case that purpose must sacrifice profit? Likely no. However, whilst it is still just the brave few such as Boston Tea Party who are willing to practice purpose in a significant way, consumers will likely remain misinformed about the financial detriment these choices can put organisations in and therefore, will see little value in paying more. With many organisations still refusing to even disclose their plastic usage, transparency in establishing a new standard of environmental consciousness seems the only logical way forward, to educate both customers and the businesses they support as to the value of making purpose-led decisions. Only then can we pave the way towards a time where profit is consistently boosted by purpose – and not punished.

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CIM Ally Lee-Boone
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