Taylor Gray, Ph.D.
The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens. I remain focused on developing meaningful and actionable insights from empirical data in pursuit of a better world.
Customers want brands to take responsibility for their impacts on the issues that matter...but this does not mean brands should try to unload their responsibilities onto their customers. Brands that continue to try this are sure to earn the ire (or lose the loyalty!) of intentional shoppers--you know, those people who want to be intentional in the impacts of their shopping and who now represent nearly 50% of the consumer market.
I recently experienced a brand trying to unload their responsibilities onto me, and I did not like it at all. The actual occasion may seem pedantic--and I will get into the details shortly--but what really grates is that when a brand does this they are effectively trying to play into consumer guilt to their advantage. I don't need a guilt trip so you can feel better about yourself, and I definitely don't need to be paying for a guilt trip.
In my recent case, the brand may as well have simply said “we know you care about impacts on people and the planet, so now it is up to you to do what is right”. Which is a terrible sales tactic--the ‘right’ thing is for me to buy from brands that take true responsibility for their impacts on the issues that matter, not to clean up after them.
Brands, be good, take responsibility for your impacts on the issues that matter and do not try to unload them onto your customers.
It's About Power...
Like I said, my recent experience is quite simple, almost innocently so, but it was the brand’s attempted play on the power dynamic behind the experience that really set things off.
I was looking for a new shirt online. I first narrowed the field of contenders based on size, style, availability, and relative price. I then ranked the contenders based on how they scored on their impacts on the issues that matter. With two clear contenders in mind, I explored particular offerings to find the best option according to my more subjective criteria--I much prefer 100% cotton or other natural fibers over polyester blends, a slim cut over a relaxed cut, and so on--all issues that are important to my personal taste but not based in any objective data.
Due diligence complete, I ordered a shirt. I was already happy with it when it arrived--a good product from a good brand, just what I was looking for. But one little issue popped this bubble almost immediately.
The shirt was pinned with three hard-to-miss cardboard tags. The type that are a couple inches wide and a few inches long and placed to convey a marketing message more than anything else. Already this seemed excessive--I already bought the shirt, you don’t need to sell me on it, and anything that can be placed on these tags can’t even come close to competing with the real estate on your website from which I ordered the shirt. Excessive and redundant.
But the actual irritation came from the bold printing on the tags that said “Re-use this card as a bookmark. Re-use & Recycle.” (Again, I did say this may seem pedantic).
This brand was not managing its impacts, it was trying to unload them onto me. Please don’t tell me to re-use and recycle until you have already reduced as much as possible.
This brand knows its customers care about impacts on the people and the planet--this is evident in their marketing and engagement efforts--but apparently it never realized that its customers also want it to care about its own impacts.
By printing a simple suggestion to use a tag as a bookmark in efforts to reduce impact, this brand was effectively playing on consumer guilt and might as well have said: “This is not trash. We have minimized our impacts as much as we are going to. This is a bookmark and if you choose to not use it as such then the impacts are on you, not us.”
This brand was not managing its impacts, it was trying to unload them onto me. Please don’t tell me to re-use and recycle until you have already reduced as much as possible. None of these tags were necessary and if the brand has actual data that demonstrates a correlation between these tags and increased sales I would love to see it. As a brand, your imagined marketing needs do not trump our collective, and real, need to manage impact on people and the planet.
Transparency is coming into the shopping experience...
I can quite easily think of a handful of different approaches this brand could otherwise engage to communicate the content of these tags without actually using tags. But to simply pretend a tag is a bookmark and not an actual tag is not one of them. This level of thinking is just lazy...and worse, it is insulting. I don’t want your trash, I don’t want to be made to feel responsible for your impacts, and even if I needed a bookmark, I don’t want one covered with blatant marketing urging me to buy more shirts.
It may seem I am making a big deal out of nothing, but this simple experience actually follows in the footsteps of far more consequential examples. Influencing how consumers feel about the impacts of products and how they perceive their role in these impacts rather than simply addressing the impacts is a strategy many brands use to cut-corners in their efforts to maintain social license. Just look to the oil industry purposefully and insidiously twisting words and shaping language to unload any responsibility for climate impacts. Marketing is manipulative but it need not be malicious.
Brands, be good, take responsibility for your impacts on the issues that matter and do not try to unload them onto your customers. For decades, there has been a power imbalance between brands and consumers, but the tables are turning and tides are shifting. Transparency is coming into the shopping experience and consumers will no longer be willing to shoulder the guilt and responsibility for the impacts they never should have been asked to shoulder in the first place.
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