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Published: February 22, 2011
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62

 
 

The Power of the Post-Recession Consumer

Microsoft is a telling example. Although Apple’s ads make it seem as though all the cool kids hate Microsoft and favor Apple, the two companies aren’t even close when it comes to the sentiments of the public at large. In our BAV survey, Microsoft always scores high on measures of its reputation, exceeding Apple by a wide margin. How does Microsoft do it? Despite its massive size, Microsoft is still widely associated with the single personality of its founder, Bill Gates. He gives Microsoft a human face and, more important, his philanthropy gives the company a heart. In February 2009, Microsoft launched a program called Elevate America to provide 2 million people with free training in information technology to help them find jobs in the postindustrial economy. By August 2010, Elevate America was running in more than 30 states and serving 900,000 people.

When we talked to Akhtar Badshah, Microsoft’s senior director of global community affairs, he told us that in its response to the recession, Microsoft pursued three main areas of focus: education, innovation, and jobs and economic opportunity. Those choices are good for Microsoft, because they create an opportunity for the company to demonstrate its strengths to current and future customers. The key point is that Microsoft uses both its money and its true areas of expertise to maximize the good it can do as a citizen corporation, showing how a company can be charitable by redeploying its existing assets and infrastructure as tools for social and economic development.

The Consumer Connection

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index was at 50.2 in October 2010, up from an all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009, but still far from 90, the indicator of a stable economy. (In May 2000, it reached a high of 144.7.) Although the growth of consumer spending appears to be slowing, we believe that people are simply reallocating the way they spend — looking for a connection to the creator of the product; banding together to get better deals; and pushing service and product creators to do more, price better, and connect more deeply to their wants and needs.

Even as people find themselves less rich, they are deploying their dollars in a more calculated and strategic way to influence institutions such as corporations and government. This desire to use money to express values stands out in our BAV data, and was expressed by many of the people with whom we spoke. Nearly two-thirds of all the people who responded to the BAV felt they could affect corporate behavior through their purchasing habits, and the same proportion avoided companies whose values contradicted their own.

The most successful companies will respond to this shift by adopting a business model in which all three parties — the business, the customer, and the community — win in every transaction. Although the Spend Shift will dampen domestic demand for some products, the market for values-oriented goods and services offers opportunities for growth in what might otherwise be considered mature categories. We examined the performance of a group of companies and brands that scored in the top 20 percent in the BAV survey on the values we had noted were becoming increasingly important — self-reliance, adaptability, honesty, quality, and community. And we found that in aggregate they enjoyed nearly three times as much usage and preference as brands that did not represent these values.

We believe that the future face of capitalism will be defined by delivering value and values. Those that embrace this reality and adapt will find extraordinary opportunities. Those that ignore it will do so at their peril.

 
 
 
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