Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Enter the Conscientious Consumer

Published in Mar-Apr 2023

Marylou Andrew-McCormack on how technology forged a new consumer activism.
The Interflow team discuss the GSK campaign to raise awareness about calcium deficiency among women across Pakistan with Amean J (left). An increasing number of brands are moving from a product to an ‘activism’ focus in their branding in order to engage with Millennials.  Photo: Arif Mahmood/White Star
The Interflow team discuss the GSK campaign to raise awareness about calcium deficiency among women across Pakistan with Amean J (left). An increasing number of brands are moving from a product to an ‘activism’ focus in their branding in order to engage with Millennials. Photo: Arif Mahmood/White Star

This article is part of our cover story <strong>Future Imperfect?</strong>
This article is part of our cover story Future Imperfect?

As consumers of brands, we have come a long way in the last 30 to 40-odd years. Gone are the days when we accepted advertising at its word, didn’t read brand labels and assumed that big (and small) businesses always functioned in moral and ethical ways. We now live in the age of the ‘better informed, more sceptical and less likely to take bullshit from brands’ consumers. And just how did we get here? In a word: technology.

Before the advent of the internet and social media in particular, access to unbiased opinions from consumers wasn’t nearly as easy, despite living in an increasingly globalised world. News travelled slowly, people had less access to information and most importantly, only a handful of people – be it politicians, lobbyists, journalists or brand managers – controlled (and often censored) the narrative that was fed to the public. 

Until the fifties, phrases like ‘doctor recommend’ were commonplace in tobacco advertising and even as late as the eighties and nineties, smoking was considered cool; remember, ‘Come For The Style, You’ll Stay For The Taste’ type ads? The unethical practices of companies like Monsanto, among others, were hidden from the public eye and consumers put their confidence in advertising that sounded good but lacked authenticity (Dove, I’m looking at you).

Fast forward to the present, where my favourite columnist, Nicholas Kristof, in a recent article wrote, “Millennials want to work for ethical companies, patronise brands that make them feel good and invest in socially responsible companies… Doing good is no longer a matter of writing a few cheques at the end of the year, as it was for my generation; for many young people, it’s an ethos that governs where they work, shop and invest.” (New York Times, January 24, 2018.)

Driven by an unprecedented access to information and opinion, younger consumers ‘care’ about who stitches the clothes they wear (big fashion with third world sweatshops beware), who makes the movies they watch (no more Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby please) and whether their food is safe and healthy (think crackdowns on MSG, hormone and antibiotic pumped dairy). But while this concern can occasionally – although not always – be shallow in that it doesn’t always translate into action (some of us still shop at Zara, right?). What is unwavering is the trust consumers place in the words and opinions of others, over that of the brand messaging. To put it another way, unbiased peer reviews trump advertising. Every Single Time.

While brands have accepted consumers’ rights and their ability to express opinions freely in a socially connected space, what has been harder to stomach is the fact that the consumer decision journey has changed almost entirely. People have always sought to gain value from their purchases and that remains the only constant. What people perceive to be of value and how they obtain it looks very different from what it did a decade ago. Although price and quality remain important, the brand’s ethos, the ethics of the company’s executives, and most importantly, what other consumers think about the brand, are paramount to the expression of value. What is both interesting and disconcerting is that sometimes a brand that doesn’t necessarily have the best-in-class product or even offer the best value can become a hero based on how it is perceived and portrayed by ‘influential’ consumers. 

This is the dark underbelly of the new consumer revolution; one in which consumers, because of their sheer reach and influence, have the power to destroy brands, and will sometimes use this influence maliciously, while at other times, they may ‘sell’ themselves out to brands that seek to harm the competition. Still, it is fair to say that more brands use consumer influence in positive rather than negative ways and converting social media influencers into brand advocates has proven to be a very effective strategy. These brand advocates, as evidenced by hundreds of full disclosure statements on blogs and Facebook groups, are generally very concerned about transparency because they know that it is easier to lose followers over dishonest reviews than it is to gain them.

While there are many international examples to speak of, in the Pakistani sphere, there are two areas in particular where this strategy has worked exceptionally well for brands. The first is food (the industry in which I currently work) where influencer recommendations and/or criticisms can pretty much make or break a business. Consumers have become incredibly particular about what they eat, what goes into their food, and under what conditions it is manufactured. Going further up in the Maslowian order, ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ product offerings are embraced with great enthusiasm and the influencer who is able to cover the most launches and offer the best reviews is most likely to have the greatest following. And it is natural that where consumers go, brands will follow.

Another area of growth in the realm of influencer marketing is women’s products and by this, I mean fashion items, makeup, baby paraphernalia, books and anything else that a woman is likely to buy. Now, this is pretty much the Holy Grail for Pakistani marketers because every product, with very few exceptions, is targeted towards the ‘housewife’. Facebook groups like Soul Sisters Pakistan, Soul Bitches and a plethora of others have followers in the thousands and the word of the handful of women leading the group is considered gospel.

As always, it is a time of challenge and opportunity for brands, but more pertinently, it is an incredibly exciting time to be a consumer of brands.

First published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017) on March 31, 2018.
At the time of printing, Marylou Andrew-McCormack was Head of Product Excellence, Hobnob. 
She is now Pastry Chef, Pasta la Fata in the US.