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Can Aspirationals Help Make Sustainable Consumption Cool?

Last month, BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility released The 2013 Aspirational Consumer Index, a report that confirms the rise of nearly 2.5 billion consumers globally who are uniting style, social status and sustainability values to redefine consumption. According to the report, more than one-third of consumers globally (36.4%) identify as Aspirationals, defined by their love of shopping (78%), desire for responsible consumption (92%) and their trust in brands to act in the best interest of society (58%).

We followed up with Raphael Bemporad, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at BBMG, and Eric Whan, Director of Sustainability at GlobeScan, for further insights into Aspirationals and the implications they hold for brands.

Which brands do you think are doing a particularly good job or engaging Aspirationals globally? In the U.S. specifically?

Whan: The best way to look at this is to examine which companies Aspirationals are supporting with their spending. We asked respondents what specific companies or brands they have purchased from in the last year because they see them as socially responsible. Of course, the named companies vary by country and there is no one company that stands out in every country surveyed. For the United States, they are Whole Foods, Walmart and GE. Globally overall, they are Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nestlé.

Bemporad: I would also say that Nike, Levi’s, H&M and BMW are actively seeking ways to engage Aspirationals by combining style and sustainability. BMW i is one great example, as is H&M’s Conscious Collection. Nike is interesting because sustainability is embedded across products, services and engagement platforms, from the FlyKnit and Considered Index to the Better World platform and the Making app.

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In the United States, I’d also call out start-ups like Ekocycle and Warby Parker that are deeply aligned with the values and priorities of Aspirational consumers and have built their businesses around them by scaling sustainability and social purpose platforms like the one-for-one model and circular design.

Let's dissect for a moment the fact that 73% of Aspirationals say, "I want to stand out by the way I look, my style." Have you been able to detect what aspect(s) of style they seek the most? Clothing? Shoes? Gadgets?

Bemporad: For Aspirationals, style is about the expression of one’s identity, and it’s comprised through more holistic dimensions of style, social status, meaning and purpose. The potential for real culture and behavior change comes when Aspirationals identify with a brand’s core purpose and employ the brand as an emblem of their values. Aspirational consumers want to be recognized socially for this combination of style and substance, which speaks to what they buy and what they stand for. When we say that sustainable consumption has shifted from the “right thing to do” to the “cool thing to do,” we mean that sustainability is increasingly expressed via design, social status and personal values.

Whan: We’re able to use customized applications of the Aspirationals framework to reveal the specific dimensions of style for individual clients. It allows us to identify the strongest market opportunities for individual brands.

You state that Aspirationals are driven by young, optimistic consumers in emerging markets. If you were to consider only developed economies, what group would you say is at the helm of the trend there?

Bemporad: In developed markets, Aspirationals speak to the failure of brands to really engage Advocates to shape culture and behavior in a way that not only influences the marketplace, but also changes the way we live. Aspirationals have become the most important pathway to changing the perception of sustainability from obligation to desire and from the right thing to do to the cool thing to do.

Leaders in developed markets such as Levi’s, Nike and Method have demonstrated that embedding sustainable design and innovation in better products and services creates a new standard for performance and impact in ways that improve the experience of sustainable consumption. The opportunity now in developing markets is to continue to drive innovation to shift from product consumption to services, sharing, making and circular product design so that we can harness the influence of Aspirationals to truly reimagine consumption. The opportunity is also there to use innovation to make sustainable products and experiences more universally accessible on a massive scale.

Whan: In developed countries in particular, the Aspirationals are a psychographic phenomenon rather than purely a demographic one. Aspirationals cut across all demographic categories and should be engaged by appealing to their values as consumers and citizens, rather than their age, for example. The market opportunity is so large that it isn’t confined to one demographic group.

Whan: Let’s look at the numbers. Aspirationals are clearly purchasing products that are good for the environment and society. Three-quarters of them say they only buy products and services from ethical and responsible companies. Ninety percent of them are even willing to pay more for products produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way and encourage others to buy from socially and environmentally responsible companies. More than half have rewarded or considered rewarding a socially responsible company by either buying their products or speaking positively about the company to others. Seventy-two percent of them think there are enough socially responsible products and services available to them as consumers.

Bemporad: Like all consumers, Aspirationals want products that work effectively, are beautifully designed, are priced affordably and are produced in ways that are responsible to people and planet. Aspirationals want it all and seek total value. They’re looking for brands to make it easier for them to meet their needs while having a positive impact in the world. For Aspirationals, the act of purchase can become an act of purpose, and the opportunity is to find meaningful ways to drive engagement and participation so that brands can harness consumers’ sincere interest and actions to impact issues that matter to all of us. Sustainability attributes that drive top-tier purchase behavior have mostly focused on health and safety, but increasingly we see a strong desire for ingredient transparency, renewable energy and fair labor.

What are the top factors that make Aspirationals believe they can change how a company behaves based on their purchase decisions?

Bemporad: Aspirationals see brands as a vehicle for positive change and are more likely to see business as a solution to social and environmental problems: 58 percent trust that brands are acting in the best interest of society. Similarly, 67 percent of Aspirationals are eager to share their ideas, opinions and experiences with brands to help them create better products and solutions to society’s challenges.

Aspirationals represent a new generation that’s powered by social media, technology and transparency, and their voices and influence have enormous power. They feel that there’s a more level playing field and that their influence can and does play a role in shaping major companies’ decisions. Aspirationals are taking advantage of these new and increasing channels of influence to impact their world and brands are now part of that equation.

Whan: Aspirationals have a relatively new disposition toward brands and the companies behind them. We can speculate that what underlies this is a failure of traditional actors like governments and NGOs to deliver a vision of the future that captures their imagination. Yet a (still small) contingent of companies is taking a stand on larger societal issues, partly in response to consumer interest.

Do you find it worrisome that nearly two-thirds of Aspirationals trust global companies to act in the best interest of society? Does that make Aspirationals a little (or very) idealistic, given the fairly dismal record of many industries in the 20th century?

Bemporad: Particularly in emerging markets, Aspirationals are increasingly entering the marketplace in a new context. On the one hand, there are tremendous environmental issues around air quality and access to clean water that fundamentally change how consumers perceive their health and well-being. On the other hand, there is an opportunity for business in emerging markets to leap-frog the mistakes and barriers that companies in developed markets have gone through in the last 15 or 20 years. So, expectations are higher for product, social and environmental performance.

In essence, the issues are starker in emerging markets, as is the desire for a new way of doing business. Brands have an opportunity to harness the idealism that’s embedded in the Aspirational segment to inspire a new conversation, collaboration and commitment to changing the way we consume.

Whan: 58 percent of Aspirationals trust global companies to act in the best interest of society, compared to 52 percent of the total population surveyed. Aspirationals might be a little more optimistic than others. Again, I’ll come back to the point that other actors (governments and NGOs) have not demonstrated leadership, and a few smart companies are demonstrating leadership. The Aspirationals now give those companies an even stronger business case.


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