THE BLOG
12/19/2011 03:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

Your Power As a Citizen Consumer

I recently highlighted a remarkable fact, that 94 percent of you would switch brands to support a cause, if the products were of equal quality. That blog post has received a lot of feedback, and I think it's testament to the power of a simple idea whose time has come. People want to do business with brands that support a cause.

We live in a connected world. With millions struggling in this downward economy, that connection may be little consolation for those on the losing end of the current economic game we're all a part of. But as that connection increases, it is becoming increasingly apparent that people are claiming a power they never knew they had -- a collective power, and yet based on individual voices -- voices of citizen consumers.

Coca-Cola was sure that even its die-hard fans would love their new white cans, freshly minted for the holiday season. As the Wall Street Journal had it, consumers had a less than "frosty reception" to the white cans, with some consumers even "seeing red" -- in short, the white cans tanked. Puns aside, it's clear that there has been a shift in power between corporations and consumers -- Coca-Cola is shipping traditional red cans as early as next week, cancelling out weeks of white cans because consumers expressed their outrage, writing to the company and expressing their discontent in online forums.

Citizens speak up. They participate. An empowered citizenry is at its core essential to the goings-on of a robust democracy. And citizen consumers are now increasingly doing the same in the economy -- they're participating, and they're speaking up. This is now standard behavior for shoppers around the country.

Think back to when Netflix unilaterally decided to change its name to Qwikster -- consumers were outraged at the change, and Netflix lost nearly 800,000 customers -- to say nothing of the drop in value of their shares.

Citizen consumers are defined in two broad and important ways. First, they are unpredictable. Coca-Cola had wanted to create a "disruptive" holiday campaign, and that campaign fizzled (really, I didn't mean this pun) because consumers decided that white cans weren't to their liking. Who could have known? I'm sure Netflix wishes they could take back Qwikster, and those 800,000 monthly subscribers and millions lost in revenue.

So companies now are on the defensive. Corporations once used mass media to push advertising to us all, yet now find themselves battling upright social media mavens who use the power of their voice to drive change that corporate headquarters would prefer to avoid.

Qantas Airlines out of Australia was sent reeling because of a social media campaign turned awry when its customers started haranguing the company instead of participating like Qantas wanted. The news isn't all bad. As Simon Mainwaring argues, companies that understand this shift have the ability to profit by having a two-way conversation with those citizen consumers.

Secondly, citizen consumers are decent. We understand the value of locally produced goods, because the dollars stay circulating in the community (as opposed to say, getting shipped to China). We understand that agribusinesses like Monsanto try to monopolize the soybean, and that there could be negative after-effects for consumers. And as I reported earlier, we want to do business with companies that have products tied to causes. A full 94 percent of us would switch brands to support a cause. That is power in great numbers, and as I wrote last week, businesses that miss this "big shift" are going to face diminishing returns.

You are a citizen consumer. You participate in the economy every day with your purchases. And you most certainly have a voice. Companies are starting to fear you, and even more importantly, they are starting to take you more fully into account. If you want your cereals, and clothes, and all the other things you buy to reflect your values for a better world, then you can participate in the easiest way possible -- by offering cash to the teller and moving on with your day. All it takes to participate is to shop with a conscience, and as it turns out we have one that's pretty large. Let's put it to good use.