It’s estimated that we make roughly 35,000 decisions every single day. Of course the vast majority of these are beyond our conscious awareness (some suggest 95%), and most could probably be considered inconsequential.
Even decisions that feel like they have direct consequence, for example buying plant-based milk because you want to opt-out of the dairy industry, or boycotting Greggs because you think their vegan sausage rolls are an abomination, are small drops in an infinite ocean of consumer choice.
To put this into a global context, each of us is one of 7.7 billion people making 35,000 decisions every day, and so our individual routine actions are statistically insignificant – most of the time what we do can’t really matter.
However, as individuals we have a tendency to feel that our decisions do matter, and of course they do, precisely because there are so many other people making the same choices. This is eloquently laid out in the context of climate change by Timothy Morton in his philosophical mind-bender “Being Ecological”:
“But individuals are in no sense guilty for global warming. That’s right - you can totally let yourself off the hook, because starting the internal combustion engine of your car every day is statistically meaningless when it comes to global warming. The paradox is that when we scale actions like that up to include every car motor start on every day since the internal combustion engine was invented, humans are causing global warming.”
Most of the time we probably don’t give much thought to the impact of our routine choices and behaviours, rarely considering our small place in the unfathomably complex web of human action. However, increasingly many of us are recognising our role and influence, particularly as consumers.
While for some, a decision to boycott Greggs may come from a place of feeling alienated and scandalised, leading to brand rejection on a personal level, for others there is a belief that taking action will genuinely trigger change on a grander scale. Consumers acting together hold power, and consumers are making passionate, deliberate choices on the basis of their morals.
Over the past few years there are countless examples of brands taking a stand in a bid to appeal to the morally conscious, with varying degrees of success. Gillette (The Best Men Can Be), Nike (ft. Colin Kaepernick), Pepsi (ft. Kendal Jenner) are prominent global examples, and while some of these campaigns successfully resonated with their target, all three saw some degree of backlash (some more than others…Pepsi).
Naturally, mass-market brands cannot appeal to everyone, and there will always be casualties when giants step in on divisive topics. However, tapping into this trend (or at least being cognisant of it) will be important for brands who want to attract the morally conscious consumer, of which there are now many.
The decision for Greggs to launch a vegan sausage roll came off the back of significant consumer demand - PETA had put forward a petition containing the signatures of over 20,000 pastry fans calling for a plant-based alternative to their classic bake, and it’s been estimated that over 12% of UK adults completely avoid meat in their diets, representing a sizable chunk of the market.
From this perspective, there wasn’t a huge amount of risk associated with the launch – Greggs knew that the market existed, offering an incremental opportunity to expand their uninspiring vegetarian range.
Of course the announcement managed to stir up some debate, which Greggs may or may not have been expecting, but ultimately they knew who they were targeting, and it wasn’t the naysayers.
Judging by my continued inability to find an outlet that hasn’t sold out by noon, it has so far been a complete success.
Although targeting a particular cohort in a meaningful way (i.e. via identity, gender, race, sexuality, etc.) can trigger discord among those it’s not intended for, creating something that truly resonates can galvanise others to decide to act together with passion, creating deeper connections with brands.
Getting the balance right and acting with credibility are challenges in this space. However, the time is now for brands to take the opportunity to demonstrate what they stand for, and capitalise on new moral economies.