The Balance of Power is shifting and it is in every marketers’ interest to understand why and what they need to do in the new landscape.

It was mid-morning on a sunny day with a gentle breeze sending ripples in the waterbodies surrounding the giant gazebo of a luxury hotel in Bengaluru. I was settled comfortably in a cushioned chair with a cup of Dark Roast Double Shot at my elbow as I pored over the resume of a creative person I was to meet that morning. It was an interesting resume but what intrigued me most was his departure from his previous job in Malaysia. When asked, he replied, “Well, the last straw that broke the camel’s back was when I looked closely at the products and on-ground promotions; being implemented by a multi-national company marketing food products for infants and children that I was supposed to work on. What the products were doing and the values that the messaging was communicating was not in the interest of children. So, I thought it best to pack my bags.”

This was the first time that I had come across someone whose convictions had translated into action at significant cost to himself to register his displeasure. Since then I have seen the numbers grow. With one big difference. Many of them take affirmative action to make the companies responsible. It is no longer a passive protest. Big brands at one time seemed invincible and they dictated what and how things should be. That is no longer true.

Increasingly brands and businesses are subject to rigorous scrutiny. The why, how and what you do in your business matters. A fairness cream may actually make you fairer but it signals promoting colour discrimination and that is unacceptable, an energy drink’s promise of delivering instant energy to children by packing sugar in the product is unethical as it is detrimental to long term health, manipulating results to meet environment norms for an automotive manufacturer results in litigation and damages, exploiting labour in other geographies to circumvent the labour laws of your own country causes a severe backlash. All business and brands, but especially the legacy brands must revisit their premise in the context of this new active consciousness amongst consumers.

The Balance of Power is shifting and it is in every marketers’ interest to understand why and what they need to do in the new landscape.

It is primarily fuelled by three factors. The rise in incomes and consumption, growth of literacy and democratisation of knowledge, the extensive reach of audio & video enabled social media made possible by technology. Add to that a tone of aggressive and often bold assertion that pervades our social fabric and you have all the ingredients of today’s consumer activism. This has brought about changes that will have rapid and far reaching implications. Let us take a closer look.

The one-man army is a reality

Consumer activism started in the 18th century when boycott of goods produced by slave labour was used as a way to give impetus to the anti-slavery movement. It gathered impetus in the 20th century with the rise of consumer organisations that represented consumer interest. But the process was slow. It took time to turn the wheels and it gave corporates time to manage the process and often the outcomes. The advent of social media and the speed and penetration of messaging thanks to a digitised world has changed all that. Now even a single individual with passion, intelligence and tenacity of purpose has the power to bring change. In fact, if you peruse some of the content created by activists it is more compelling and convincing than the messaging of reputed brands.

The good and the bad both get amplified. Intelligent leaders who understand the dynamics can use it both as a guidance mechanism as well as an instrument of growth. It is not about putting out your agenda through influencers. It is about guiding your decisions through listening. You have to keep your ear to the ground. You don’t necessarily have to respond. But it gives you time to plan if a tsunami is headed your way or raise the sail to catch the wind when the good you do gets applauded.

The conscience of the collective is on the move

The knowledgeable, the engaged, the interested, the invested are all forming groups to promote causes that are close to them or are cause for concern. Geographies having been rendered meaningless in a digitally connected world. Scientists, academicians, mothers, social activists across the world are connecting, sharing and evolving views that will affect choices for consumers. Scientists coming together to push for legislation on food, mothers sharing experiences on brands for infant care, youth coming together with their views on climate change, the boycott of products from a country because of lack of trust. These are already a reality.

In a more complex world with many moving parts business and brands need a lot more. They can no longer be managed by researchers, planners and brand managers alone. Progressive companies need think tanks that have specialists. Economists, sociologists, anthropologists, environmentalists, humanists, nutritionists, design thinkers, lawyers etc. depending on the business. The beauty of complexity is that the antidote always lies in simplicity. But to get there you need deep understanding.

You are hurting others with your follies

Which in turn will hurt you. The interrelatedness of politics and business today is intense, bordering on the dangerous. The state is therefore often the target of consumer activism to pressurize business. While democratic governments are happy to support business, if their own credibility or constituency is threatened that is not acceptable. Bad products, misleading claims, socially disturbing messaging are often taken up by people’s representatives for reasons social or political and pressure is put on the bureaucrats and the legislature. The response is stringent, punitory laws.

Industry bodies and those responsible for implementing self-regulation would do well to take serious note of the real pressures that accrue when consumers get agitated. They tend to operate on the principle that they have to ring fence business. The real need is to emerge as an active, effective and honest protector of consumer rights if they want to limit state interference and gain the trust of consumers.

This article first appeared in businessworld.in

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About Author

Nitish Mukherjee

The author is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion

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