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Thinking Organically: Honest Advertising in the Fake News Era


Sept 22, 2017 | Jessica Ogilvie

In May of this year, Princeton University Press published researcher and writer Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. The book, which has been widely praised by critics and scholars alike, explores the notion that the new wealthy class — or “aspirational class” — seeks not to be defined by high-end labels, but by socially conscious purchases and items like yoga mats, reusable grocery bags, and organic produce. That class, she adds, is increasingly populated by Millennials.

This isn’t the first time the trend has been identified. In a Nielson poll released in October 2015 that surveyed more than 30,000 online consumers in 60 different countries, researchers found that 66% of those international respondents who fell into the Millennial age demographic (an age group whose range has been much debated, but which according to a 2015 Pew report includes persons 20-36 years old) were willing to pay more if products met certain sustainability requirements. Of that 66%, 69% were influenced by a product being made from “fresh, natural ingredients”; 58% were influenced by the product being “from a brand known to be environmentally friendly”; and 56% were influenced by a product being “from a brand known for its [commitment to] social value.”

The same study found that the generation just below Millennials — Generation Z, or people aged 15-20 — felt the same as their older siblings. They were similarly likely to spend more on brands for the same reasons, and, the poll notes, their willingness to pay more for those products is increasing, going from 55% in 2014 to 72% just a year later.

Good Cause? Good Business.

Lots of companies are working to capitalize on this trend through efforts to increase sustainability and marketing campaigns that shine a spotlight on existing socially conscious practices. These efforts are known as corporate social responsibility, or CSR, and research has proven them to be vital to attracting, and keeping, Millennial customers. A study conducted in 2015 by Core Communications found that 91% of people in that age group would switch from one brand to another if the new brand was associated with a good cause.

So why is CSR suddenly so important? According to research published by the Haas School of Business at Berkeley in California, much of the Millennial commitment to social responsibility can be traced to an innate distrust of marketing and branding, which, unlike their parents, they often view as based on false promises. “Instead of being immediately swayed by brands with entertaining ads, these digital natives are more likely to question companies’ authenticity and true motives,” the Berkeley research states.

You Better Mean It … Because They’ll Know

To that end, digital natives don’t want to simply be told that brands are socially conscious; they want to be shown. It’s not enough to simply say that your company is doing all it can to make the world a better place; 79% of the coveted demographic confesses to wishing that brands were more transparent about their CSR efforts, and 69% want brands to take that transparency even further by helping customers to join their social responsibility efforts.

As such, it’s unwise for businesses to just throw around words like “sustainable,” “organic,” or “ethical” if they want to keep the younger generation interested for the long haul. Instead, make real commitments to real companies based on whatever your budget and time will allow. Use social media consistently and in an honest way, listening to customers and reacting to their posts and comments. And above all, don’t make promises you can’t keep; if there’s one thing we can take away from all this, it’s that the new generations of consumers can spot a phony from a mile away.

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