Art & Commerce: Awake and Aware

Back in 1993, a lot of people thought I was crazy to open an ad agency specializing in environmental issues. I even had a client say as much—to The New York Times.

Fast-forward to today. A significant segment of the population is engaged with social and environmental issues, and a handful of values-based brands are enjoying sizeable increases in their business. Magazines ranging from Outside to Elle have published a “green” issue. Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Wal-Mart is committed to achieving zero waste. Corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing initiatives such as (Product) Red are on the rise. Organics are skyrocketing. Fair trade is a commonly touted concept. Sustainable forestry is gaining traction. Ditto sustainable tourism. Socially responsible investing continues to rise.

Although world events ranging from 9/11 and corporate scandals to Katrina and the tsunami have contributed to these developments, there’s also a group of people driving the change in today’s society, especially with regard to the commercial marketplace.

We call them “awakening consumers.” They are awakening to the concept that they can affect change through their purchases and to the idea of incorporating their personal values when selecting one brand over another. In short, they are awakening to the power they wield in the marketplace.

To begin to quantify this group, we established some behavioral criteria, crunched some numbers through Market Research Inc., and discovered there are 49 million awakening consumers in the U.S. today, about 23 percent of the adult population. They tend to skew slightly female, have a median household income of $60,000, and live primarily in cities or major suburbs (with a slight Western skew). But most of all, they tend to be well-educated. However, awakening consumers are more of a psychographic group than a demographic one. They can be any sex, age, race or religion, and can be found in all lines of work, in all parts of the country.

Because most awakening consumers are not fully “awake,” they tend to demonstrate some paradoxical behavior. They may drive an SUV, but refuse to fill it up at Exxon. They may have an organic, fair trade coffee for breakfast, and for lunch pick up a bottle of Fiji water (transported 8,000 miles). They’re not perfect. They’re just figuring this sustainability business out, and every day they’re getting hit with new, often contradictory information.

This is the key thing marketers trying to reach awakening consumers should keep in mind: They’re confused. They want to do the right thing, but aren’t sure how to go about it. Although the information age has empowered the awakening consumer, it has also bewildered them. On one hand, the Internet has made possible the levels of corporate transparency that guide awakening consumers in their purchase decisions. On the other hand, according to Pew, there are now more than 50 million blogs.

Awakening consumers are decidedly engaged with environmental issues, especially global warming. They buy compact fluorescent lights, but then read an article decrying their mercury content. They turn down the thermostat and put on a sweatshirt, but now have to worry about where that sweatshirt came from, and if sweatshop or child labor was involved. Awakening consumers hear all about the carbon footprint created by their cars, homes and travels. They consider carbon offsetting, but then have to deal with concepts such as transparency and sustainable development benefits.

And it’s not just consumers who are confused. There are plenty of companies struggling to understand what “green” really means. Many brands dealing with sustainability issues are tiptoeing through a minefield full of consumer expectations, and void of helpful standards or regulations.

It’s not easy being awake.

So if awakening consumers are diverse, paradoxical, value-driven, information-saturated and confused, how do you talk to them?

Three simple words: clarity, candor, hope. Provide clarity by guiding consumers through the aforementioned confusion. Tell them all about your product, including how and where it’s manufactured. Present the facts, and let consumers decide how “green” you are, if that is your claim. Timberland is doing a great job of this. I especially like the “nutritional label” the company now puts on its boxes. It spells out environmental, labor and community impact statistics for consumers, right there in black and white.

Candor, of course, means you must be completely honest with this group. They’re going to find out the truth one way or another, so it might as well come from you. Give it to them, warts and all. Awakening consumers don’t expect you to be perfect, but you’d damn well better be honest. Chiquita is setting a good example to follow here. The company has hardly been a model corporate citizen in the past, but by admitting its flaws, and stating how they’re being addressed, Chiquita allows awakening consumers to grant it redemption.

Finally, give them hope. You can’t tell people the sky is falling without telling them how to catch it. Hope begets action. Paul Mitchell Systems has developed an exciting program, Head for Change. The campaign Web site is upbeat, energetic and spotlights the efforts of several young people trying to make the world a better place. It also provides tips for how users can get involved with the issues presented on the site. Seeing young people so engaged and inspired can’t help but make consumers feel hopeful. It’s a great message.

Come to think of it, clarity, candor and hope are how we should communicate to anybody, regardless of whether they’re awake.

Awakening consumers support brands whose values are in line with their own, and those are the brands best poised for success in the years ahead. Because it’s only a matter of time until we drop the “awakening,” and think of them simply as consumers.