Altruism or selfishness? | Brand Republic Feature

AUK News Digital
Mountain on lake

To the casual observer, the recession appears to have made consumers far more careful. But actually, we may be witnessing a more significant change in their behaviour. They are, in fact, becoming considered rather than careful. Consumers are increasingly ready to break away from more ‘conventional’ behaviour. But before we go into the why let’s examine the evidence…

Take utilities. Yes the market opened up a number of years ago, so people have been picking and choosing for a while. But now there appears to be a significant shift to higher degrees of self-sufficiency and/or eco-awareness. In March 2009, Swift Wind Turbines reported that sales of domestic wind turbines for homes and small businesses had been doubling every month.

In 2008, worldwide production of domestic solar panels had increased by 80% compared to the previous year. Even Water Butts Direct stated that ‘last year we were hit with a large number of water shortages and, as a result, water butts have seen a heavily increased demand’. Consumers are breaking away from supermarkets too. More of us are growing our own veg. In August 2009, Sutton Council reported that ‘the recession has sparked a huge surge in allotment hire, with all of the borough’s vacant plots snapped up since last summer’. We’re even changing the way we shop for food. US farmers’ markets have increased by 13% on the previous year (Govmonitor, 2.10.09), with sales exceeding $1 billion. Back in Blighty, Friends of the Earth stated that in 1997 we had no farmers’ markets, by 2008 they had generated £23.7 million in sales. Even vegetable box schemes have soared. The BBC (July 2009) reported that sales had increased by 53% to £560 million in 2007. These are all significant rises, which don’t appear to be slowing down. Even education has witnessed a shift. According to Home Schooling UK there has been a 17% annual increase in children being home schooled in the UK (c. 50,000).

A Channel 4 study (26th September 2007) uncovered that 103 of 134 local authorities reported an increase in home-educated children. One of the key reasons was parental ideological objections. Equally surprising, The Guardian reported (11th April 2009) that due to a planned shake up of home education in England (described by Barbara Starke, chair of Action for Home Education, as ‘totalitarian’), more and more parents were leaving England for Scotland – where the changes would not take place. In fact, School House, a Scottish home education charity, has seen a four-fold increase in enquiries.

Clothing is changing too. There has been a considerable increase in sewing machine and wool sales. Female First Magazine (22/4/08) stated that sales of sewing items illustrate that more and more consumers are making their own clothes. Year on year sales of selected models have, in fact, enjoyed 50% growth. Richard Webster, sewing machine buyer at Argos, says, “We’re now seeing sewing machines return to favour, particularly low price models popular with those embarking on home sewing for the first time – it’s a modern take on the ‘make do and mend’ attitude of previous generations and it looks set to continue, especially with the challenging economic environment.” According to The Mail Online (7/10/09) knitting is also on the rise. Sales of wool are up by 30% since last autumn in the UK. Hobby Craft said it sold more than one million balls of wool last year – an increase of 28%. It appears that the most successful products will be those raw materials or products on to which consumers can put their own stamp. For example, creating your own trainers or opting to have or to shed the packaging and bags with your product. We’re even leaving the car at home in increasing numbers. (27/8/08) reported that research conducted by the Bikes Belong Coalition, an American industry organisation, surveyed 150 bike retailers in 40 states in the US. It concluded that three quarters of the stores were selling more bikes against the previous year and that bike repairs were significantly increased. This was linked to an increase in usage for errands and commutes, and the increase in petrol prices. So consumers seem to be ‘making do’ more than ever? Sounds a bit like the war years doesn’t it?

The difference is that this time rather than being fuelled by rationing and a state of war, it’s potentially a suspicion of our institutions, governments and global organisations. The fact is, as consumers, we all question more than we did before. We share experiences. Our desire to protect ourselves from the machinations of bigger organisations and government is leading us to search out new places to shop; to take back control of what we eat, how we dress, learn and live. The web has only accelerated this. In the war years, we helped the people along our street. Neighbours grouped together to help one another. But now thanks to the internet that street has gone global.

By going online, we can quickly join or form groups with people who share our opinions, desires and interests. These congregations can spring up very swiftly and have great effect. Equally importantly, they affirm our choices and help encourage our new behaviour. So we can take back the ‘power’ from the comfort of our own living rooms without the need to wave placards. We’re becoming quiet revolutionaries. Simply by altering our purchasing behaviour in our own way, we’re sticking it to ‘big brother’, without causing too much of a fuss. But are we really trying to change the world? Is this new-found altruism actually a by-product of the recession and our desire to have more control and save money? We’re not clubbing together for the benefit of one another.

It’s more selfish altruism, which is an oxymoron. However, it seems rather apt, because we’re saving money and then saving the world by accident almost. Whatever the reasons, the fact is these new ‘tribes’ are on the rise. Now the question is how do companies communicate with and market to these consumers? How do they combat the suspicion and the desire to take more indoors? If we take the middle ground and see this change as being a mixture of ethics and frugality, then the key is to look for value and a wider benefit. When they try to connect with consumers the balance of emotional and rational pulls is crucial.

One thing’s for sure, as we come out of the recession, consumers are making more enlightened purchasing decisions, and those brands that tap into this desire will have a sustainable future. The ones that fail to, or whose behaviour does not meet this expectation, are going to be in trouble.