Retailers and customers that make a stand together stay together. That’s a big, bold claim. But stick with us. We’ve got the evidence to back it up.

This isn’t just lofty thinking dreamt up on a marketing whiteboard. The evidence is all around us that customer loyalty is being won (and lost) on higher ground than experience or price.

Now, more than ever, consumers care about what brands stand for, say and do. We’re putting the emphasis on the do here because just saying “love us because we love the planet” won’t cut it. Consumers don’t want empty phrases. They will judge you by what you do, not just by what you say because, in the words of Shakespeare, talk is “mere prattle without practice”. Customers are choosing retailers that share their sense of purpose, values and beliefs. They care about the impact a brand is making on the world. And retailers need to show they care too. The pandemic has made sure of that.

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“Customers are choosing retailers that share their sense of purpose, values and beliefs.”

The rise of the conscious consumer

Grey economic skies usually mean that consumers change their buying behaviour. Priorities change and they reduce spending on ‘green’ products and services. But these are not normal times. The Coronavirus crisis has been a black swan event that has profoundly changed customer behaviour and perceptions of what’s important in our lives. The pandemic has accelerated two big shopping trends that were becoming dyed in the wool long before the crisis broke: digital and shopping sustainably.

Retailers that are out of step on ethical, environmental and social causes will be out of step with their customers. Tackling climate change and a renewed focus on environmental resilience is critical to brand planning for the recovery ahead. What does the data tell us about changing customer behaviour? PwC has been taking the consumer pulse during the pandemic, and its latest research tells us that between October 2020 and March 2021 consumers had become even more digital and eco-friendly (they also said they shopped more price-consciously, healthily and locally).

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Out of necessity, we’ve all changed the way we shop–beyond digital. We’ve shopped locally and tried stores that we previously would have just passed by on the way to work. We’ve eaten at local restaurants and bars that put a premium on everything from the provenance of their produce to the way they work with local suppliers, to the sustainability of the materials they use. Local shopkeepers and communities have come together for the greater good. They have been setting the bar on what an ethical CX looks like. Now, after spending the best part of a year-anda-half indoors, many consumers have money in their pocket to spend. Being an ethical retailer is a powerful differentiator to convince them to spend with you.

The loyalty factor

​​Businesses that connect with customers on a shared sense of purpose, value or belief tend to build hard-to-break bonds because their customers are also emotionally invested in doing the right thing. The most effective marketers use ‘emotional branding’ to build these relationships by provoking an emotional response. They use content and messaging that tap into the part of the brain where our core values and beliefs live – in the subconscious.

In a saturated, volatile market retailers that focus on messaging and products that maximise emotional responses will be rewarded because an emotionally connected customer tends to: 

  • Spend more
  • Make more repeat purchases 
  • Be less price-sensitive 
  • Trust your brand and follow your advice 
  •  Make more positive word-of-mouth referrals

“13% of consumers would pay up to 50% more for your products or services if they thought that your business was making a positive impact on the world.”

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The science of customer emotions

Consumers have highly emotional reactions to retailers big and small. But understanding what triggers these reactions is not so easy. For most brands building these connections is more guesswork than science. 

Their marketing teams have little idea about what works and whether they have achieved what they set out to do. To give them answers, the researchers at Harvard Business Review (HBR) put on their lab coats and turned to the appliance of science to find out which feelings drove buying behaviour. HBR described these feelings as ‘emotional motivators’. It went as far as asserting that these motivators were a better gauge of a customer’s future value than any other metric, including brand awareness and customer satisfaction. It was a breakthrough moment. The research team discovered that it was possible to rigorously measure and strategically target the feelings that drive customers’ behaviour.

Hundreds of ’emotional motivators’ were discovered. HBR distilled its list down to a top 10. Customers are inspired by the desire to:

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So far, so good. But you’re probably now thinking what happens when your competitors sharpen their tools and they also become experts at using emotionally triggered marketing? How will you stand out? The answer lies in the rational side of our brains. Being ethical and doing good in the world is an emotional thing. But the solutions are rational. So, should rational branding also be part of your marketing strategy? The answer is a resolute yes.

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In the stampede to build emotional connections, retailers could be missing an opportunity to engage shoppers on a rational level, too. As brands increasingly become experts at emotionally triggered marketing, then technicalities – product attributes, features and facts – are important, as is the way you do business. Consumers want to see an ethical red thread running through everything you do. The list is long of retailers that have been called out for unethical practices. 

Queue the rise of activist brands…

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