Stop trying to influence your consumers – let them influence you

By ECD / Founder, Nick Steel

I have a question, and I’d like you to consider your answer carefully: when was the last time you changed your business strategy as a result of consumer feedback? I’m not talking about tweaking your newest product, or rethinking your latest advertising campaign. I mean transforming your entire approach to how and why you work the way you do. If your audience told you they needed something completely different, would you be open-minded enough to take that on board?

We all know that in today’s society, brands have more contact with the general public than ever before. Social media means that – for good or for bad – anyone can express their feelings in a matter of seconds, allowing those in the boardroom unprecedented insight into their consumers’ wants and needs. 

But truthfully, I still don’t believe brands are listening. And if that doesn’t shift soon, they’re going to start paying the price. 

Whether it’s through activist organisations such as Fashion Revolution or Extinction Rebellion, or via grassroots Instagram accounts such as Estee Laundry, which call for companies to be more inclusive, people are speaking up and demanding more than ever from their favourite brands. Quickly disappearing are the days of mass consumerism: today’s public identifies as citizen first and consumer second, and expect the products they purchase to reflect those values, too. Two thirds of millennials say that a business’s primary purpose should be ‘improving society’, over generating profits – and they’re willing to boycott those unwilling to change.

Unless brands take this feedback seriously, they’re going to keep getting things wrong – and losing revenue as a result. After all, progress rarely comes from positions of power and privilege; it stems from the everyday people brands are trying to reach – the people who not only want, but need societal change. 

This is why so-called ‘citizen dialogues’ are growing increasingly popular in politics, employed in countries such as Taiwan and Sweden as a means of analysing policies on the likes of national security and digital privacy. Bringing together a group of strangers over the course of four or five weeks, they remind me of an especially high-stakes jury duty that could impact the lives of millions. At a time when many democracies around the world are threatened by increasingly autocratic leaders, it’s an approach that’s proving incredibly popular – both with politicians, and the public.

I wish brands would employ a similar technique. More than half of consumers say that the most important thing is for a brand to understand them and their needs. Yet very few brands authentically involve their audiences in their initiatives, campaigns or product development. They don’t listen to feedback or take criticism seriously – and when they do organise focus groups, they last all of three hours and invariably only ask questions that ensure they will get the answers they want.

One extreme example of this is Facebook. In a 2009 blog post, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the platform was to become more democratic, and that he had developed a new voting process to allow users to veto policies they didn't like. In 2012, the experiment was put to the test. But even though 88% of voters opposed Facebook’s proposed terms, their votes ended up counting for nothing. Zuckerberg decided that too few people had participated, and ignored the feedback he received. 

That scandal may have taken place ten years ago, but little has changed in the decade since – except for the general public becoming even more disillusioned with brands that continually disappoint. 

Allowing the general public to influence how your company operates might feel strange at first. Brands are profit-driven beasts by nature, while potential consumers want value and better business governance, and those priorities don’t always go hand-in-hand. But research proves it’s worth the effort: responding to your consumers’ real wants and needs not only future-proofs your brand, but invariably proves profitable in the long term. Just look at Patagonia’s Action Works initiative, which sees the company financially support activist groups and individuals – giving social innovation equal priority as product innovation, and building a collaborative community of loyal, like-minded individuals along the way. 

Thankfully, there are resources out there to assist you. Creative agencies are in the business of challenging the status quo, connecting with consumers, and understanding society at large. Brands need to value their skills as intermediaries – think of them as social interpreters, ready and poised to help brands communicate with their target demographics, and vice versa. 

Similarly, if you have time to read one book on this subject, make it Citizens by social strategist and consultant Jon Alexander. Published in March last year, it takes a deep dive into the current moment of transition that has the general public moving away from mass consumerism and towards something more akin to communal responsibility. Alexander suggests that by rethinking the way we view our role in society, we can work together to find commercial, profitable solutions to the world’s problems, rather than pretending such problems don’t exist and trying to make people buy products they don’t actually need.

Change is always going to be hard, and accepting that your consumers want you to shift the way you do business is always likely to be a difficult lesson to take on board. But by stepping back and empowering people to ask for what they need, brands will be seen as more authentic, transparent and meaningful, while helping to make our world a better place. 

In order to retain their consumers in the coming years, brands will have to stop trying to influence their target audience, and instead let their target audience influence them.