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2011: Year of the Citizen Consumer

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Two studies released in recent weeks have confirmed what many marketing and brand professionals have been observing and intuiting for months: consumers want to do good in the world through their purchases. Mitchell Markson, Global Chief Creative Officer of Edelman, who released the goodpurpose study, wrote a fantastic HuffPost blog post about the findings of the survey, and about how purpose is being integrated into marketing efforts in more concerted ways and with favorable consumer response. I suggest you read it. According to Markson, the marketing world is coming to an understanding that purpose must carry as much weight in crafting an effective ad campaign as the traditional "Four P's of Marketing": Price, Placement, Product and Promotion.

Another survey, the "PRWeek/Barkley Cause Survey," investigated the beliefs and perspectives of men regarding the world of cause marketing. I won't go into whether I agree with the study's preamble that there is a "natural assumption" that men don't care about cause marketing. But what I will delve into with you are the astonishing findings, of which marketers ought to take note: a full 88 percent of American men say it is important for a brand to support a cause. Such a finding points to a new masculine ideal taking hold, an evolution beyond the bad-boy tough guy ideal -- American men are comfortable with having a good heart. Maybe they don't want to wear it on their sleeve. But they do want to contribute through their purchases, and in fact a majority demands it: 55 percent of men said they would switch brands from a company that did not support a cause to one that did.

These surveys clearly showcase that the American consumer, whether female or male, is expecting engagement from the business sector at the level of cause. Carol Cone, managing director of brand and corporate citizenship at Edelmen, had this to say about the future of cause marketing and citizen engagement with brands at the level of cause:

"Cause-related marketing, as we know it, is dead. It's not about slapping a ribbon on a product any longer." ..."Americans seek 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.'"

In 1955, retail analyst Victor Lebow presciently declared this statement about consumption in America: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. he economy needs things burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate." Ever since then, Americans have been the most active and avid consumers of products in the world. What these studies show, along with the rise of social enterprises like Better World Books and TOMS Shoes, are that consumers are demanding that companies bring cause into the mix in buying and selling their products and services.

The term "citizen consumer" is more than a moniker. Consumers are now recognizing their power to effect positive social change through their consumption -- in essence, enfranchising themselves and their communities with their pocketbooks as much as with their civic participation. The lines between business and cause are beginning to intersect, and integration of cause and business is now being seen not just as a trend, but as a foundational pillar of good business in the 21st century.

No longer content with price and quality, consumers now place social purpose as a higher purchase-driving trigger than design, innovation, or even brand loyalty. A full 87 percent of U.S. consumers now expect companies to balance societal interest with their own business interests. The study also found that brand engagement with causes struck a deep chord with the Millennial generation. A full 53 percent of Millennials would help promote a socially responsible brand on Twitter and Facebook.

You have probably heard about the Pepsi Refresh campaign, where Pepsi sponsors $20,000,000 worth of community programs while empowering consumers to vote for their favorite projects. (A plug: my organization StartingBloc is seeking $50,000 in funding to help bring international social entrepreneurs to our Social Innovation Institutes; please take a moment and vote for them) Underscoring the notion of citizen consumers is the number of votes placed on the site -- more than 50 million thus far. Pepsi executive Melisa Tezanos expects that by the end of the year more votes will have been cast on the Pepsi Refresh platform than for either presidential candidate in the 2008 election.

For all the increased buzz around social good campaigns and cause marketing in the United States, international consumers have surged ahead of Americans in demanding that brands deliver social goods in addition to the product or service they sell. Nearly eight in 10 consumers in Brazil, India, Mexico, and China now expect brands to support a good cause. In the United States, 63 percent of Americans expect brands to support good causes.

The motivations behind consumption habits are changing around the world. The Edelman survey found that a full 83 percent of global consumers would be willing to change their consumption habits in order to make the world a better place to live. That number suggests to me that consumers are waiting for businesses to get with the program. A movement is afoot, with consumers recognizing that their purchases can improve their communities and their world. Businesses that organize their enterprises around the blind pursuit of profit without considering the equally important motive of purpose may find themselves alienating a previously stable customer base.