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The Organic Consumer Shift

February 04, 2021


The Organic Consumer Shift

Can You Shift Consumer Thinking?

We’re in the middle of a massive change in consumer thinking. Ever since it hit, people have said we’re going to see some of the big shifts that happened last March stick. And the longer the pandemic goes on, the more likely it is “temporary” behaviours will be permanent.

We’ll likely split on things like in-person shopping and mask-wearing. But we'll likely ask some more serious questions. Take the gym for example. Before, we might have seen gyms as the best option for getting workouts in and sticking to a fitness routine. Now that we’ve all had to work out at home for the better part of a year, we have some serious questions about the gym! Are online classes a better, safer, and more sanitary way to stick to a schedule? Can they be a replacement for the social side of the gym? Is getting out into the fresh air and going for a walk as good—or more motivating?

We might even have concerns about how sanitary the gym is. From there, we could decide that we’re better avoiding it nine times out ten. Since we had to shift our routines for so long, we might have the chance to rethink our commitment to the gym. The decision could be that we don’t need to get back there.

This is an organic shift in consumer thinking. Sure, it’s necessary because of the pandemic. But the change originated with consumers themselves. Yet, as Marketers, we know how tough it can be to shift consumer thinking, even when there’s a groundswell of intent. Gyms face an uphill battle getting people back, even if they offer social perks like classes.

We can see this at work in plenty of different categories—soap is one of the best-known examples out there. Even with concerns about hygiene right now, some brands are still trying to change consumer thinking. Dry shampoo is one of the examples that stands out to me—will this stick?

Let’s take a look at the factors influencing the move to dry shampoo and the forces that could roll back a movement.

Personal Hygiene Goes Green

“Green” soaps are a response to the new consciousness about our environment. Gen Z and even Millennials are more concerned about climate change. So, brands are trying to capitalize on that by marketing them “greener” products in all corners.

The beauty world is no exception. Look at cosmetics giant LUSH. The brand advertises recycled bottles and “naked” products, which have no packaging at all.

The brand also advertises that their products are vegetarian or vegan. They’ve replaced glitter with an environmentally friendly variant. They encourage customers to either recycle plastic containers or bring them back in exchange for a free product. They also offer products like toothpaste chips and dry shampoo.

LUSH is most definitely not the only brand moving on these trends. Everist, out of Toronto, is an example. It uses aluminum packaging, which can be recycled. It also encourages consumers to send back the plastic cap. But unlike dry shampoo, Everist’s co-founders say they want their product to be more like what consumers are used to.

That includes taking out harmful ingredients like sulfates and parabens. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a foaming agent, has gotten a bad rap in recent years. While it gives us the suds we like, it’s also not so great for the planet. SLS irritates aquatic life, causing a whole host of issues, including breathing problems.

It’s not just our fishy friends that suffer from SLS, though. SLS actually isn’t totally good for humans either. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, of course. But people who are sensitive to it have had a tough time finding products that are free of SLS. And even when products are SLS-free, many companies just swap in sodium laureth ethyl sulfate, a close cousin. This is about the same as swapping BPA plastics for BPS—“better,” but without the science to back it up.

Gen Z and Millennials, as well as the generations coming up after them, have more allergies. Even if Zoomers aren’t concerned with environmental impacts, they themselves might be sensitive to SLS. Or, they might at least know someone who is—so they’re more likely to look for SLS-free products.

Can You Actually Change Thinking?

All that would seem to make something like Everist or LUSH’s dry shampoo a guaranteed hit. While they seem to be picking up dry shampoo and SLS-free soap more often, there’s still a big question to answer.

Can you actually make these products stick?

The biggest problem is how people tend to associate “suds” with “clean.” Look at European Body Washes. This type of product has been launched a few times in North America over the last 20+ years. This product crashed on the Canadian market, because it didn’t produce enough suds. Canadians looked at this soap and didn’t feel clean when they used it. They ended up using much more than recommended amount. That, in turn, meant it ended up being more expensive, since they ran through the product faster.

Hair masks met a similar fate. People who used hair masks didn’t see the signs of clean they were looking for, which led them to abandon the product. They either felt it didn’t work or that it didn't provide value. They ended up using too much of the product and running through it faster. In some cases, overuse even led to damage.

So, can dry shampoo—which doesn’t foam at all—really communicate clean to a market that believes suds mean clean? There’s also a question about how people are using this product to find the markers of cleanliness they’re looking for. If a small tube of product costs almost $30 and you use more of it to feel clean, are you getting any value? You might want to be environmentally friendly, but your wallet will ask you to be more fiscally savvy.

There’s even questions right now about hygiene itself! We’re hyper-aware of cleanliness equating with safety, particularly around soap. Antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, and handwashing got a huge boost last year when the pandemic hit. People are being extra vigilant about cleanliness. Concerns about sanitation even rolled back environmentally friendly bottle-return and reusable cup programs. Starbucks won’t refill your reusable travel mug right now. You have to take a to-go cup, with its plastic lid.

Other companies—including some soap businesses—also halted their return programs. They can’t guarantee that those bottles aren’t coming from households with the virus. It sort of makes you question how hygienic, sanitary, and safe those programs were to start. The coronavirus isn’t the only infection agent that's travelling on the plastic cap you’re sending back to Everist!

That leads us to a big question about these programs. If people are more concerned about hygiene, cleanliness, and sanitation, will they actually invest here? Or will these concerns outweigh any desire to go green? We all saw how fast we switched back from those travel mugs to to-go cups. Even some governments are saying we have to ditch cloth masks to go with safer, disposable surgical masks. And that does seem a lot safer—after all, can you sanitize a cloth mask for reuse? It’s safer to pitch it and get a new one.

So, what can we learn here? Well, creating change and shifting consumer thinking—permanently—is difficult. It’s even harder if we’re trying to shift it ourselves. We might think we’re responding to macro-trends and consumer desires. We could also be missing the big picture, a fundamental “truth” of the category—like “suds = clean.” We can try to change that logic with scientific fact or messages about environmentalism. The fact remains that it’s an emotionally engrained truth. That’s tough to root out, even if we and our customers are motivated!

And what’s more is that consumer behaviour is so changeable. It’s taken years to get this much environmental traction, just for the pandemic to have us switch back to disposables. So we always have to be looking to our consumers, to see what’s motivating them the most right now—especially when there are competing concerns, like health and safety versus the environment.

And that means we always need to be going deeper, delving into motivations, customer needs and how we’re meeting those. And that means we have to start with the why!


Here to inspire and create conversation!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles I have written to inspire others.

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