SA brands: get real

27 Apr 2007|Added Value

All around the world, consumers are increasingly looking to brands to help them make a difference across a range of social issues from animal rights to global warming to poverty and HIV/AIDs. Alison Tucker of brand development and marketing insight company, Added Value, asks if South African brands are up to the task.

It’s interesting to me as a marketer how few brands are paying attention to the rise of consumer activism. In a world where consumers are speaking out, South African brands need to listen up or risk losing out.

Demanding ethical and responsible behaviour from corporates is no longer the domain of eco-warriors and Greenpeace, but a grassroots, in-store phenomenon that is affecting big business across all categories.

The conscious consumer is not a new concept, but a short search on Google shows just how many sites there are dedicated to helping consumers link to socially responsible companies. Already, in countries like the US and Europe, big brands are coming under fire for their role in rising obesity levels around the world, while at home lobbyists are questioning food labelling laws and scrutinising all kinds of marketing statements and practises.

Consumers themselves are also starting to hold brands accountable for their claims. In 2005, for example, a South African consumer famously took a vehicle manufacturer very publicly to task for not delivering on their service promise. Similarly, as reported on Carte Blanche earlier in 2006, American lobbyists are making waves around marketing to children and demanding that corporate giants take a more responsible approach to how they target young consumers.

And we believe this is just the beginning. Our insight team recently consolidated findings from a series of projects over the last 18 months and trends in SA all focus overwhelmingly on authenticity, across all segments of South African society. People are tired of being played. They want reassurance, transparency and most of all honesty and they are only going to get louder in asking for it.

Consumers from all over South Africa have a common refrain: “we’re not stupid!” It’s well documented that media proliferation and wall to wall messages have desensitised consumers to marketing speak, yet instead of trying to speak more clearly, marketers just seem to shout more loudly. From “diet” cool drinks to political parties, consumers are saying ‘I see through you’ and this is not a way to build long term loyalty. What it is doing is forcing consumers to be more discerning. Even the less marketing savvy consumers are sceptical of big brand behaviour and are in some cases quicker to drop brands that let them down.

The trend is accelerating. Running the social issues gambit from animal rights to global warming to empowerment and HIV/AIDs, consumers are literally crying out for brands that help them make choices that are in line with their own ethics and values.

Fortunately, some brands have begun: the Bodyshop, for example, is the poster child for ethical products in the beauty industry, while in the automotive sector hybrid cars have finally made an appearance. Nestlé have recently released fair-trade coffee while Motorola has created a bio-degradable mobile phone. Across the Atlantic, Walmart is putting pressure on its suppliers; from packaging to food, to deliver environmental benefits to its consumers. Closer to home, Woolies appears to lead the big retailers with not only an organic food range, but the beginnings of an organic clothing range as well as initiatives like the MySchool Card and programmes that address food security and nutrition in schools.

My concern is that the pace at which South African brands are adapting is still too slow. Most brands have only grudgingly given way to consumer demand, and often only in the face of legal action. Admittedly, in South Africa, some companies are making progress through their Corporate Social Investment (CSI) programmes. However, South African business still needs to acknowledge that sustainable development and community involvement are not only necessary for the development of the country’s economy, but that they can also have tangible benefits to long term business objectives and brand building. It’s worth noting that CSI purely as charitable window dressing will never deliver genuine benefit for businesses and certainly will never strike a cord with consumers.

It comes down to how consumers want to feel. Many of us don’t have the time to campaign or complain, but we want brands that make us feel good, healthy, ethical, and virtuous. Every time brands promise one thing and then are proved to be another adds a further layer of cynicism to our already hardened shells. Brands that can genuinely take a stand as our champions will become the next generation of retail heroes!

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