Are consumers wising up to brands’ half-truths?

Apr 12, 2019

GDR Innovation Researcher Madison Hutts reveals the four reasons why brands can no longer hide behind half-truths and must now be fully transparent and honest with customers.


I recently spent some time researching the eco-friendly practices and claims made by various wet-wipes brands and was staggered by the volume of meaningless half-truths being peddled that imply sustainability and fuel customer confusion.

Many leading brands in that sector use vague phrases with little or no ethical credentials to signal the apparent low environmental impact of their products. Phrases like “dispersible” and “disposable” sound great, but the former just means the material breaks down into smaller pieces, without giving any insight into how hazardous it might be, while the latter simply means it can be thrown away after use. Even the word “natural” has no legal or regulatory definition.

The wet-wipes industry is by no means the only sector where this type of selective copywriting proliferates, but it’s an excellent example of a category where brands are not yet being fully honest and transparent with their customers.

This is something that needs to change. Last year, KMPG found 87% of global consumers feel it is important for brands to act with integrity. This rise of conscious consumerism means brands across all categories need to have social responsibility clearly embedded in their mission or values.

In this blog I’ll outline the four reasons why brands need to act now.


1) Social media and access to information

Think Dirty

With more than five billion unique mobile users in the world today, it only takes a matter of minutes for something to go viral. Take, for instance, the most liked photo on Instagram, a picture of an egg that took a matter of days to achieve the accolade. A brand’s reputation can be ruined just as quick if they’re found to be caught in a half-truth.

A Bazaarvoice study reveals 82% of smartphone users consult their phones on purchases they are about to make in-store, with 45% reading reviews before completing purchase.

Customers now have an unprecedented access to information about brands and they’re using it to help make buying decisions that meet their own personal lifestyle goals.

The Think Dirty® app, for example, allows users to scan barcodes of beauty, personal care, or household products to find out their sustainability score, ingredients, and recommendations for greener alternatives. Similar services exist for clothes (Good on You and Ethical Brand Directory), food (HowGood), and every day products (EWG), so there is now very little room to hide for brands that are not being fully transparent about their products and processes.


2) Increase in legislation


The rising power of consumers’ collective digital voice isn’t just being used to call out offensive brands, its being used to lobby legal entities and governments.

The Global Web Index reports 50% of respondents feel national and local governments are the ones responsible for the future of the environment.

These governments and regulatory bodies are putting in place legislation that increases the minimum standards in some key areas, making it harder for brands to hide behind half-truths. Indeed, a movement that began by focusing on issues like sustainability, health and wellbeing is also leading to a crackdown on misleading claims. In Singapore, for example, the government has proposed an anti-fake news law, while the UK government is being pressured to put regulation on misleading celebrity-endorsed health regimens and products.


3) Greater awareness and interest

It isn’t just millennial shoppers that demand transparency from brands

The third reason why brands can no longer get away without being transparent, particularly about key issues like sustainability, is because consumers are more interested and aware than ever. And I’m not just talking about millennials here.

A Forrester Data Digest report from last year found that, since 2015, there’s been an increase amongst every generation in the percentage of customers that “actively consider company values when making a purchase”.

In addition to this, a Nielsen report on sustainability from January concluded that 73% of global consumers, not just millennials and GenZ, would probably or definitely change their consumption habits to help reduce their environmental impact.

Socially conscious marketing is both a powerful and necessary way for businesses to shape their brands and connect with the values at the heart of their consumers.


4) Backlash against greenwashing


Greenwashing is when a brand makes a vague statement or visual cue to imply that they’re driven by ethical or sustainable change, when really their intentions or drive is fairly low-key and non-comital. Consumers are getting better at recognising this approach, and they’re not afraid to call it out.

Take, for example, Nestlé, which received backlash upon its announcement that it would make all packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Oceans campaigner Graham Forbes led the scorn against the brand. He said, the pledge “sets an incredibly low standard” with no clear targets or timeline.

Greenwashing can also involve using words or images that imply an ethical approach, even if there is no substance behind them. As I already covered earlier, words like “natural” don’t necessarily mean what they suggest, but consumers, better informed and aware than ever before, are starting to get wise to that.

The tide is turning and the only option for brands is to leave the half-truths behind and be open, honest and genuine with their customers.

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