When is a consumer not a consumer?

Sustainability leaders are on the collective hunt to find, engage, and motivate the elusive ‘consumer’.  They know that if they want to achieve their ambitious sustainability goals, or win round their senior teams, then consumers need to be at the heart of their plans.

But what characterises a ‘consumer’ and how can we understand their motivations and attitudes so that they become willing and active collaborators in the quest for a more sustainable world?

Many companies are working hard on this question, but few would argue they have successfully cracked it yet: for many, the take-up of sustainable products and services has been slower than expected, and with it the pace of change.

But what if we need to start in a different place, and strip consumers of their label and to see them first as citizens, as individuals, as people?

This idea is starting to take hold among certain sectors of the sustainability community – Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer, recently talked about “mattering to people”, instead of “marketing to consumers”. But in practise, segmentation and categorisation is the norm. And, most of the time, this is absolutely right: tailoring messages, or offers, based on deep customer insight gives them a far greater chance of resonating or being taken up.

But there is also merit in stepping back sometimes, and seeing the ‘consumer’ as a whole human being, or as a person who can easily shift between categories (consumer, employee, activist etc.)

I recently carried out some fascinating consumer research looking at sustainability in segmentation models. It was useful on many levels – having a presentation marked ‘consumer research’ tends to get people listening. But perhaps most importantly sustainability became part of the main marketing conversation. At times, working in sustainability can feel like you’ve been put on the children’s table at Christmas and keep trying to get the adults’ attention. Here we were talking the same language, bringing new insight, and highlighting new opportunities to deepen the relationship with the customer.

However, despite the project’s success, when I reviewed the conclusions, I was also left considering this ‘consumer’. What were we missing by seeing people not as whole beings, but as walking wallets, making purchasing decisions based on a set of pre-determined criteria. Even the word ‘consumer’ encourages you to view it in the third party like some alien entity, totally divorced from you, or me.

I’m a consumer, you’re a consumer. We can also be employees, activists, campaigners, parents, children, friends, and many more things to different people. We’re all of these labels in part and none of these labels in full.

And if we remember this consumer is also us, our choices probably depend on a lot of variables, like what our bank balance says that day, our stress levels, whether we happen to be feeling optimistic or overwhelmed, what we’ve just seen on the news or on our social media feeds.

While we couldn’t have found out the detailed, segmented nuances that the research offered, I believe that if we’d talked among ourselves, or to our employees, the broader themes would have been very similar.  During the research, I failed to identify myself as anything other than the project lead; my wider team were people with an input into the research design; employees more generally were people to communicate the results to. But what if we’d asked some of the questions we posed in the research to ourselves, and our employees first: not as employees of our company, but as consumers of our company’s products and services, or – more broadly – as citizens?

Consumer research is important, and often illuminating. But there is also merit in sometimes looking above the categorisation and thinking about people in the whole, or as many parts of the whole. Want to know how to nudge consumers into making sustainable behaviour choices? Think first how you’d nudge yourself.

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