In 2019 businesses must drive social change: consumers demand it
A view from Sairah Ashman

In 2019 businesses must drive social change: consumers demand it

From Unilever and Lego to Sainsbury's and Rihanna, there are countless examples of businesses using creative thinking to shape the world for the better.

Keith Weed’s recently announced departure from Unilever has brought renewed attention to his legacy, and it’s an impressive one.

At the same time as increasing sales and profits, Weed embedded the company’s commitment to sustainable business. He demonstrated how an organisation can bring its principles to life through real action, and the results speak for themselves. In 2018, the business announced that its most sustainable brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its turnover growth.

Meanwhile in the US, outdoor wear brand Patagonia has donated $10m (£7.9m) to non-profit environmental groups, after it saved that amount through corporate tax cuts introduced by Donald Trump. This isn’t a gesture towards activism: it’s genuine activism, through and through. Patagonia has a long history of basing decisions on its beliefs over the bottom line, and of driving change as a result.

Other businesses have followed suit in recent times. They’ve become political, and while many still need to put their money where their mouth is, some have created substantive, agenda-setting policies of their own.

Iceland banned palm oil, Tesco paid the tax on tampons on behalf of customers, Diageo phased out plastic straws and Walkers introduced a crisp-packet recycling scheme after immense pressure from activist consumers.

What’s behind this change? A fast-paced, tech-driven world and failing trust in the establishment’s ability to keep up with societal shifts, for a start. At Wolff Olins, we conducted research in partnership with CitizenMe which says as much.

We talked to 7,000 people in five markets over the course of two years, and found that people a) want fundamental change in the world, and b) want businesses to drive it, ahead of governments and other traditional sources of regulatory power.

More recently, we’ve investigated this further. We asked people exactly what’s needed to drive the change they seek. The standout finding is that businesses must push to do things differently. Completely differently. Only 6% of consumers want businesses to continue as they are, using established methods.

Everyone else, regardless of age, seniority, geography and gender, wants them to push the boundaries. And, more specifically, people told us they want organisations to apply this spirit by focusing on a handful of imperatives:

Steering conscious choice

Half (50%) of our respondents thought that rather than simply proliferate cheap, convenient products that can be bought on Amazon with the flick of a finger, businesses should actively help people make more conscientious purchase decisions.

From Apple telling us how much time we’re spending on our iPhones to help manage our screen time, to Sainsbury’s introducing labels for "food-bank friendly" products, guiding consumers to make better choices – and be more accountable for them – isn’t just morally sound, it’s something people actively want.

Forthright ethics are increasingly high on the agenda too, with consumers responding to organisations that demonstrate them. Just look at the spike in Nike’s sales after it engaged civil-rights activist and American football player Colin Kaepernick.

Moving the focus from "seamless" to "conscious" needs to be a serious part of the 2019 business agenda.

Pioneering new power structures

People want more influence over the brands they buy from. When asked how businesses should interact with their users, "giving the community control" was a top priority. Take a leaf out of Monzo’s book – the challenger bank encourages users to shape its services – or from Lego, which invites fans to submit concepts for future products through its Lego Ideas platform.

In a similar way, respondents want more power in their workplaces. When people were asked about the most important aspects of business strategy, they said they wanted management to feel like a shared process that involves everyone.

John Lewis & Partners is the poster child for this kind of culture, as heralded in its recent rebrand and "Bohemian Rhapsody" campaign, and others are moving in the same direction. Aardman recently made headlines for giving staff a majority stake in the business, and Capita invited 70,000 employees to apply to join its board as non-exec directors, becoming the first FTSE company to do so since the 1980s.

Building for a representative group, not a select few

There has been a lot of conversation about diversity and inclusion in the past year and that is echoed in our research. People want to be seen as individuals, not just consumers, so rather than designing around a limited number of generic customer groups, consider all the people your business touches – from marginalised employees and underserved consumers to members of the local community.

New businesses are pushing the boundaries in this area: Rihanna’s beauty line, Fenty Beauty, known for its cosmetics to suit a broad range of skin tones, expanded into fashion and brought different body types to New York Fashion Week for the first time.

The Phluid Project, billed as the world's first gender-neutral store, serves as a platform for non-binary customers and doubled its sales figures in its second quarter of trading. Wegman’s, New York’s favourite supermarket chain, became the first retailer to provide real-time, in-store description services for visually impaired customers. This just marks the start of what’s to come.    

Overall, this research is a wake-up call. "Business as usual" is no longer acceptable, and in 2019 organisations of all sizes must radically rethink how they operate, using the ideas above as a foundation, in order to drive the kind of change that’s urgently needed.

Sairah Ashman is global chief executive of Wolff Olins