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Do the right thing: inside the business of ‘virtuous’ consumerism

Consumers are more socially aware than ever in the wake of coronavirus, given the focus on sustainability and community which arose from the pandemic.

They are “buying smarter” and purchasing brands that align with their social goals.

Companies that want to build loyal customers are taking notice and investing in being “virtuous” or doing the right thing, said Ian Johnston, founder of Quinine, a UK-based retail agency

In an interview with Arabian Business, Johnston talks about how can brands can drive towards being virtuous while maintaining their bottom lines.

AB: Do you feel there is a rising interest among consumers in virtuous or socially conscious brands?

IJ: I think there has always been an interest among the activist type of consumers in virtuous brands but what Covid did is accelerate everything. It made consumers question why and how they purchase what they do.

For the past several years, there was this big focus on convenience retail where it was all about making it simple and easy for consumers to buy more stuff. But with people staying at home during Covid, they realised they really don’t need everything they thought they needed. They realised that a lot of things they thought were fundamental are actually perks of life, and suddenly things like next-day-delivery seemed frivolous.

AB: Why do you think this happened?

IJ: I think our habits started to change the longer we spent time at home. Our focus started to be local, about the people in our community.

As a consumer, I started to see the impact that my purchasing habits are having. I almost got a little bit of a rest to stop and think of what I am doing.

I think what Covid has given us is a bit of a moment to re-evaluate everything in our lives including what we buy and where we are buying it from.

AB: Who do you think is most vested in this move towards purchasing from virtuous brands?

IJ: Millennials and Generation Z see their purchasing and where they buy from as an important part of their own identity.

I think we, as adults, have kind of absorbed some of those habits when we see our kids purchasing from virtuous companies.

Being at home and seeing what their teens are purchasing made parents reflect on whether there is a better way to buy what they need and what the companies they are buying from are doing in terms of social good.

AB: How are companies responding to that?

IJ: Companies are looking at how to align their businesses to be more sustainable, and here we have to note that sustainability goes beyond recycling and the environment.

Companies pursuing sustainability need to dive deep into elements such as: are their stores located near a bus stop or an electric charging station? Are they hiring their staff from the local community?

When you start to think about sustainability beyond just the environment, recyclables or materials, you start to expand on what matters and what can have an impact. And so sustainability is the big momentum-generator that everyone is behind.

AB: How can brands balance their corporate demands and doing the right thing?

IJ: Brands exist to make profits so I don’t think you can ever be a 100 percent virtuous brand. It’s not fair to even ask that of them because they are commercial entities that need to make money and so they will inevitably act out of self-interest.

But that’s okay, it’s important that we drive towards being virtuous. If I can make 80 percent of my decisions based on doing good, I think that’s a great place to be.

What we ask brands to do is galvanise and bring awareness to things that perhaps haven’t had that public voice in the past and that’s a really powerful thing. I’ll give you the example of when Patagonia brings up stories of the ocean or when Tom’s talks about providing shoes for deprived families.

These are campaigns and initiatives that matter to these companies and that resonate with them, so they’re not playing up to what the consumers want to hear.

AB: How do such initiatives positively impact a company’s bottom line?

IJ: Brands are differentiating themselves from the competition by being virtuous.

When they do things that go beyond the product and service, that resonate with consumers, they can build loyal, lifelong customers who align with the brands’ purpose.

Consumers can choose the brands they want to spend on and they are buying smarter nowadays. If they need an item that is produced by two different brands, they are almost always aligning themselves with the brand that is doing good over the brand that’s not doing anything.

If you think about it, is there much of a difference in the performance or purchasing experience of one smartphone over the other (of equal quality)? Since everything is becoming the same, the only thing that differentiates is the company’s purpose or their virtuous acts that align with individuals people’s aspirations.

If I have a personal goal to be sustainable, and the brand I purchase my products from helps me become the person I want to be, then I get a lot of value out of that.

That’s how you build loyalty and trust and that’s what brands are after; they don’t want customers moving from one brand to another brand based on price or convenience.

AB: How can a brand identify a cause to align with, if they don’t have one already?

IJ: I think it goes back to its brand values. If they don’t have good values, they need to re-evaluate those and update them for today’s world.

Their social causes should then guide everything they do from their policies on inclusion and diversity to the way you source their products.

AB: How does the retail store experience tie into all of this?

IJ: Physical retail spaces are changing as well – no longer is it about them having stock and consumers selecting products.

If the company is driving towards being virtuous, then their physical stores need to speak to that too. If, for example, you’re a mobile phone company and you are supporting sustainability, it would make sense to have a repairs section on site.

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