Technology and the Rise of Values-Based Consumerism

As a communicator, I’m interested in the various ways technology affects the way we all access, consume and distribute information. The affordances of smartphones and social media, for example, give consumers a window, like never before, into the behaviour of businesses they deal with. All of this has given rise to what can be called “values-based consumerism.”

Man's hands shown holding tablet.
Technology, such as smartphones, tablets and social media, has helped with the rise of values-based consumerism. (Image by Ponsulak Kunsub.)

In an interview Liz Oke, of Liz Oke Marketing INC. and marketing instructor at the University of Toronto, argues that smartphones have fundamentally changed our lives. “These aren’t even phones anymore,” she says holding up her smartphone. “They’re mini computers. No matter where you are you just have so much access to information. And depending on the person, they have their own set of values. If businesses are resonating with those values, consumers are going to continue on with the customer journey beyond awareness.”

And, of course, it’s not just smartphones. Social media gives consumers access to unprecedented amounts of information, including information about how well businesses are behaving. And, over the past couple of years, we have witnessed, ironically, that even social media companies themselves (Facebook, Twitter etc.) are not immune to the ire of users who feel let down.

Consider the results of various consumer research projects coming out of America of last year:

  • 49% of professional women and 38% of professional men said they would think twice about purchasing products and/or services from a company facing MeToo allegations (2018 FTI Consulting and Mine the Gap study )
  • 3/10 of consumers have boycotted a brand or abstained from purchasing a product/service because of its political or social stance on an issue (2018 research project conducted by APCO Worldwide)
  • 71% of consumers expect companies to emotionally connect with them on important issues (2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose study)
  • 38% of survey respondents say they have a favourable view of CEOs who voice their opinion on hotly debated topics (2018 research by Weber Shandwick)

The issue presents a particular challenge for all communicators, including marketers. Steven Hobé, CEO of Hobé+Hosokawa and marketing instructor at George Brown College, suggests that technology is giving consumers more access to the two-way dialogue surrounding companies and more freedom to refine their choices, as opposed to “bending in submission” to the one-directional, mass advertising more heavily relied on in the past. “This, in turn, has led to a higher expectation of companies to abide by certain ethical standards,” Hobé says, “hence the rise of values-based consumerism”

Oke and Hobé say the issue comes up with both their clients and their students.

“One thing that I hammer into the heads of my clients,” says Oke, “Is ‘It’s not about you!’ Consumers want to know that your company is aligning with what they believe in. What’s the persona of the people you trying to reach? What are their needs and values, and how are you going to deliver value to them?”

“As a teacher,” Hobé adds, “these issues constantly arise in our classroom debates. Certainly, Generation Y, for example, have high expectations of companies. Whether it’s on issues of child labour in retail, environmental concerns, or discrimination in the workplace, Gen Y is passionate about boycotting companies that stray from the ethical path, and disseminating their disgust and distrust on social media for those firms they deem wayward.”

So, how should communicators address this challenge?

First, communicators must understand how technology changes the practices we put into place. The issue presented in this article is, of course, not entirely new. For example, consumers have been engaging in moral consumerism since, at least, the slave era when some white Americans and British people, who disagreed with slavery, boycotted slave-made goods.

Picture of an earthenware sugar bowl. Abolitionists were early advocates of what can be called values-based consumerism.
Abolitionists during the Slave Era steered people in the direction of moral purchasing, i.e. values-based consumerism. (Source BBC)

And the “Uses and Gratification” model of communication, developed in 1959 by Elihu Katz, suggests that people are most receptive to mass communication messages that align with their personal values, beliefs and interests.


What’s new today, however, is technology’s profound effect on the spread and intensity of moral consumerism. Economist A.O. Hirschman, writing in the 1970s, argued that when a consumer experiences dissatisfaction with a company they can either use voice (i.e. complain to/about the company) or exit (i.e. do business with another company). In part, today’s technology is amplifying voice and allowing consumers to exit from anywhere.

Second, I believe that for all communicators to be successful today they must align themselves with their audience’s values and worldview, and create an emotional connection with them. How can brands do this? Hobé says marketers should strive to humanize the brand. “Consumers no longer wish to interact with a logo or tagline, but with a company that exhibits human characteristics and behaviours—a company that makes ethical choices for the public good.”

Oke stresses the  importance of persona-based marketing. “It’s very effective,” she says. And it gives you precisely the type of demographic and psychographic information needed to really connect emotionally with consumers. She also talks about the importance of corporate social responsibility. Oke argues that “giving back to the community through donations and volunteering is better than simply vocalizing about a problem on social media.”

However, Oke—a self-described “risk-averse marketer”—cautions against marketing that’s too political. It worked for Nike and its support for Colin Kaepernick, but Oke suggests that it’s not worth taking risks unless your brand has a very niche audience.

Finally, Oke recommends coaching sales staff so that they understand this issue. “Make sure that sales understands the importance of having an emotional connection with customers.”

A version of this article first appeared here in Communicator Magazine. (Note, you need to be an IABC member to view
the article.)

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