This week we posed the question of Brand Ethics and their impact on purchasing decisions at our think tank; what we came away with was the reality that there are a lot of factors that effect whether our Millennials purchase a specific brand. Ethics are just one part of that decision.
Before I delve into the substance, I’ll introduce this weeks’ thinkers:
- Joe Cardillo, an older Millennial, Content and Analytics specialist.
- Kiernan McGinnis, young Millennial, 2nd year student at Lehigh University, English Lit. Major
- Judy McCloskey, an older Millennial, actor, director at 2nd City, and social media Community Manager.
- Samantha Estoesta, a young Millennial working in Public Interest Research
If you want to listen to or watch the hour long hangout, here it is. Otherwise, my recap follows:
We had already set the topic for the week’s hangout when Ryan Wynia, one of the inspirations for this group, sent Hessie Jones and me a barrage of interesting posts concerning Gen Y. The one that I had to read and re-read was a recap of a Pew Research survey, 6 new findings about Millennials by Bruce Drake. The one thought that stuck with me was:
Millennials are less trusting of others than older Americans are.
Just 19% of Millennials thought people were trustworthy in general, compared to 31% of Gen Xers and 40% of Boomers. It appears that Millennials are even more skeptical than Gen X, a generation famous for its apathy and disgust. If they don’t trust their fellow man, we wondered, what in the heck do they make of brands?
The Direct Question of Brand Ethics in Purchasing Decisions
First of all, it’s pretty clear than just about anyone would prefer to buy from an ‘ethical’ company, and Samantha was clear that buying responsibly was very important to her and her peers. However, she thought that individual economic prowess really weighed into the decision and that purchasing ethically was a luxury. She felt that often socio-economic class was a more important factor than one’s age. She pointed out that Walmart may come under attack for its labor practices, but for some lower income people there may not be an alternative, and she didn’t feel she had the ‘right’ to try to take that option out of the marketplace.
Judy was very pragmatic, and put it this way:
Do what you can when you can, when you have the extra dollar.
But she made it clear that she recognizes that her dollars meant something, and compared spending them to a ‘vote’ for “how she wanted her country to be.”
What makes a company ethical?
Kiernan McGinnis, our resident uber-smart Millennial, said that he does a lot of research on significant purchases, but he also questioned what really made a brand ethical… and this is where the skepticism comes in. But when I asked if his peers were equally skeptical, he was certain in his answer:
Kiernan used the Cult of Apple amongst Gen Y as a clear example of that. Apple makes their products in China under questionable labor standards, and uses precious metals mined in Central Africa; he compared them to Exxon Mobile.
Joe said it really mattered to him that a company actually behaved ethically, not just say they do. The very public issue of Hobby Lobby intervening in the healthcare of their employees had all heads nodding in affirmative when Joe said he’d never shop there again, not because of the owners’ personal beliefs, but because they ‘interfered’ in the personal decisions of their employees.
So, the message to brands was pretty clear: if we can afford to withhold our dollars from you, we will if we think you are behaving badly. But was it the same for all businesses of all sizes?
Are Mega Corporations Given More Time to Get in Line?
Joe Cardillo spoke to the fact that complex organizations can’t shift on a dime – as long as they’re ‘getting better’ and headed in the right direction, he’ll be patient. He mentioned Nestle, and we discussed Hershey Company as well. As long as a large corporation was moving in the right direction, they have time to get there.
Interestingly, Judy and other thinkers said that they tried to buy from small, local businesses as much as possible, thinking that they were inherently more ethical than large corporations.
How Many People Actually Care?
When I posed the question to Kiernan as to whether he was representative of his peers on campus, he categorically said no. He told the story of trying to start an Amnesty International chapter and having only 2 people show. Interestingly, in juxtaposition to Samantha’s experience with her peers, Kiernan thought that his affluent co-eds were NOT interested in brand ethics at all.
Judy took that a step further and told of returning home to rural Northeastern Pennsylvania where most of her peers and younger Millennials not only didn’t care about brand ethics, but became agitated with all of the pressure to ‘behave responsibly.’ She told the story of her younger cousin, employed by the gas lines, who didn’t even have patience with the company employed regulators and became angry at the thought of anyone slowing her down.
All of this brings us back to the point that a) Millennials are not a robotic monolith, and b) many factors impact their decision to purchase.
Is it the Pervasive KNOWLEDGE that makes a difference?
That very pressure resisted by Judy’s rural friends was felt throughout our think tank, but not solely based on social responsibility. The vast amount of information streaming at us made every one of us overwhelmed, bringing Joe to the point that he moderates how much of the ‘Op Ed’ culture he lets in.
Hessie Jones questioned whether Millennials cared more, or if it was the vast amount of information available to us now that made us question brands more. We agreed that it certainly made it easier to judge brands and hold them accountable.
You’d Better Walk the Walk
Our Think Tank was decidedly tougher on brands who espoused social responsibility; the last thing they want is to be taken for a fool. If you say you’re ethical, you’d better mean it or you will be held accountable. Tom’s Shoes was brought up as an example of a company whose model didn’t give back as much as promised, although it was acknowledged that they had made changes based on the criticism of their model.
Starbucks took a hit for their ‘globe water,’ espousing that it donated to charities but not passing muster; interestingly, non of our Think Tank frequent the chain. They prefer smaller, independent coffee shops, and it made me wonder: does Starbucks have a looming crisis with Gen Y?
Sometimes our Millennials like a brand, are repeat customers, but then cement their relationship when they learn of ethical behavior. New Balance running shoes were a good example of that, given high marks for being made in the US.
Joe Cardillo made it clear that he didn’t need to do research; over time a brand’s true ethical foundation reveals itself, and Gen Y is watching.
Does Made in the USA hold any significance?
After Judy made the positive comments about New Balance, I asked the tank if that was important to them. Does a generation who embraces and has only known a globalized economy care about US manufacturing? The answer was not easy to reach.
Kiernan wondered WHEN did ‘we,’ as in America, accept this globalized economy? When did we decide that cheap products were more important than quality products and fair wages? Millennials were clear that they were born into this and had no say in the decision; it did strike me that, as much as has been placed on the shoulders of Gen Y, there is something very comfortable in having no responsibility for the bad things that we must deal with. Frankly, I don’t feel that my generation had much say either.
But I had to push this generation, the one that talked about the ‘collective we’ as more important than the negative ‘me generation,’ the people who care about brand ethics and resist established traditions. If a company like League Collegiate Apparel was paying fare wages and really taking care of their employees, as well as being responsible global citizens, WHY is it wrong to do it in El Salvador and not the US? Not one of our panelists said that it was.
The reality is, this question was almost unanswerable. I think we all understand that the industrialized America with high paying labor jobs is primarily a part of our past.
Is any of this affecting the way a brands do business?
At the end of the day, if everything we went on about for an hour matters, brands will change the way they do business, and of course, they already are. We spoke of large corporations moving their massive infrastructures in the ‘right direction.’ Joe singled out Unilever and their more recent course of action along these lines.
And just as many things impact the reason Millennials purchase certain products, the internet and the transparency it lends, as well as the higher standards expected by younger consumers, are changing business in a major way. Brands that aren’t paying attention may be caught out, and these Gen Ys will certainly hold them accountable.