Implications of socially conscious consumers on the marketing profession

As the world watched Greta Thunberg sail into New York Harbor for her visit to the U.N. Climate Action Summit on September 23rd, there was a glaring omission – no logos on her zero-emissions yacht. Not one. She even removed BMW and Swiss wealth manager EFG International from the vessel before she agreed to sail on it.

Greta living her values and foregoing any sponsorship for her trans-Atlantic voyage is on full display. Also in the spotlight is the changing nature of marketing and how brands show up with consumers. Now, more than ever, it’s not as much what a company says or where their logo shows up. People, particularly younger generations, want to see action – not words. And that’s having an enormous impact on us as marketers. And words are clearly not enough for Greta.

In fact, public interest in corporate responsibility is on the rise: a July survey of 1,026 adults, by polling firm New Paradigm Strategy Group, found that nearly three-quarters (72%) agree that public companies should be “mission-driven” as well as focused on shareholders and customers. Today, as many Americans (64%) say that a company’s “primary purpose” should include “making the world better” as say it should include “making money for shareholders.” 

From a marketing perspective, enterprises have to make similar decisions to Greta when it comes to if, how, and when to use social responsibility, sustainability and other social impact efforts to generate revenue. As marketers, this is changing our profession and how we feel about our work and the best new ways to create awareness and drive demand.

This new wave of conscious consumption, driven largely by millennials and Gen Z, is pushing companies to innovate around social causes. In today’s politically charged world, brands can’t afford to sit out of the conversation. Nor can marketing purely focused on features and functions work in this new environment. Brands need to be decisive and transparent about taking a stand on important social issues, live these values in company operations, and develop programs that contribute to the cause. 

In fact, according to Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand Study, 86% of consumers believe that companies should take a stand for social issues and 64% of those who said it is ‘extremely important’ for a company to take a stand on a social issue also said they were ‘very likely’ to purchase a product based on that commitment. Let that sink in. Only 14% want the “old way”.

It’s not just Greta. Plenty of companies are abandoning traditional marketing in an effort to appeal to the socially conscious consumer. Just look at Proctor & Gamble and what they’ve done with “The Talk” and “The Look” to illustrate the unconscious bias that plagues black women and men.

And just last month, the Business Roundtable, a major corporate lobbying group and arguably the most powerful platform for CEOs, released its latest “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation”—a mission statement for the country’s publicly traded companies. For more than 20 years, every version of the document has claimed that companies exist primarily to serve the interests of their investors—which typically means making money by any means necessary and preferably lots of it. This time, however, the Roundtable dropped that language, claiming it “does not accurately describe” how corporations view their role today. The new version states that businesses are responsible to all “stakeholders” including their workers, suppliers, and local communities.  The change isn’t about altruistic belief—capitalism is shifting.

When done right, these social impact efforts aren’t just good for the world; they’re good for business, too. Unilever recently announced that its 26 Sustainable Living brands (including Dove, Lipton, Hellman’s and Seventh Generation) grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its “turnover growth”. 22 of Unilever’s 26 Sustainable Living brands are in its top 40 brands. In another study by Interbrand, companies with a purpose set on improving our quality of life outperform the stock market by 120%.

The cry for corporate social impact is being answered by businesses around the globe. But how do they ‘take advantage’ of these efforts in their marketing campaigns and demand generation?

Persuading today’s buyer is very different than in the past. Before, you could tell consumers what they should know about your product and company. Nowadays, the consumer knows everything about who you are and what you stand for. And they decide what they think. 

Given all of these factors, it’s a very fine line, but how do you deliberately build demand and qualified leads – when the very premise of your brand or campaign has to be 100% authentic – or it fails, period. Can you actually nurture and progress leads without it coming across to the buyer as though they’re being marketed to? Can you turn positive perceptions of your company into demand generation and revenue?

In this series, we’ll explore different ways businesses can tap into the hearts and minds of the socially conscious, purpose-driven consumer to improve marketing tactics across the nurture process.

This article is co-authored by Kevin Thompson and Matt Berry, longtime friends and colleagues who share a past at IBM Corporation. Kevin and Matt each had roles in shaping both Marketing and Citizenship programs at IBM, and have continued to explore ways of combining socially conscious brand development with marketing and revenue generation goals. GOOD/Upworthy and Conversion are seeking opportunities to jointly support innovative marketing teams with new program development. Please visit: and

Read the next article in the series: What’s Happening to our Profession?