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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Power of the Post-Recession Consumer

Wary consumers are going beyond just reading labels to get the best products and the best deals. The most tech-savvy are using online services as they stand in the supermarket aisle to get instant access to information on prices and on a company’s social or environmental record. GoodGuide, for example, a California company that tracks, tests, and publishes research on the basic “goodness” of products people buy, has reviewed more than 65,000 products and posted findings online for consumers since 1997. Shoppers are also relying on one another for information, via Facebook, Twitter, and online rankings.

Twentieth-century companies were in the information arbitrage business. They knew more about their product than customers did, and they used that information advantage to create profits. Today, however, customers have equal (and sometimes superior) access to data. As a result, transparency becomes all the more crucial. Today’s stakeholders can see through a glossy cover-up. They crave a true, authentic story. They will be interested in how a company thinks and how it makes decisions.

One company that has recognized this is Patagonia Inc., evident by its launch of the Footprint Chronicles in late 2007. This online feature reveals how the manufacturing and delivery of Patagonia’s products affect the environment. A visitor to the site can click on any product and track its environmental and social impact along its path to the store. As a product crisscrosses the globe, pop-up videos explain each stage of production, from design creation to sewing to distribution, giving statistics for each item’s energy consumption, distance traveled, carbon emissions, and waste generated. Although the Footprint Chronicles have demonstrated that some Patagonia products have negative environmental impacts that are nearly impossible to upend, the company’s presentation of fact rather than message has helped establish it as an honest, trustworthy company. In today’s marketplace, successful companies will practice complete transparency, letting customers see their supply chains, management strategies, and values.

4. Companies That Care

As we noted earlier, our data suggests that kindness and empathy are now dominant discriminators in commerce, and are valuable attributes of the best companies. The ability of a company to identify with its customers is now a prerequisite for any brand in the post-crisis age. Today, openness, humility, and understanding are critical. Generosity binds a company to its community and its stakeholders.

The rising importance of generosity reflects the fact that the post-crisis era will be defined by inclusion rather than exclusion. The emphasis is on being more human and humane in transactions with others, and people will set these same standards for the businesses with which they deal. Spend Shifters are buying artisanal food because they trust companies that reveal how their food is produced and handled. They patronize cooperative small businesses because such businesses use their profits to build up their local regions. Passionate customer groups will also band together to fund niche offerings that speak directly to the areas about which they feel most strongly. Because 71 percent of U.S. consumers are now aligning their spending with their values, businesses that practice in a new way will find a vibrant marketplace. Instead of selling shoes, such businesses sell empathy and respect. For each pair of Toms Shoes that a customer buys, for example, the company sends a pair to a child in the developing world. Instead of serving food, companies create communities of hope. Instead of making cars, they promise fairness, openness, and shared discourse.

Consumers will be looking for signs that companies care about their impact on communities and are investing in making things better. Selling to your customers will require investing in your customers. Generosity opens up networks, provides access to talent pools, and creates future customers. The vanguard companies understand that showing kindness and humanity is now a competitive advantage.

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