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Here's what fringe consumers tell us about the post-pandemic marketplace

Wooden figurines represent one person outside the group
Andrii Yalanskyi

For years, communications firm Shelton Group has been gathering data about "fringe" consumers through intensive, manual social media analysis about both environmental and social sustainability.

Why? Because while the fringe tends to be ahead of the curve when it comes to the trends, eventually some ideals of fringe consumers become mainstream. As just one example of a once-nascent idea, Shelton Group pointed to the call by buyers for consumer brand companies and others in the consumer products value chain to transition away from plastics that eventually end up in the ocean.

"The important piece of that is this is where you as a business and as a company and as a brand can take a look and understand something, that if it comes at you as a surprise, it’s a threat," said Susannah Enkema, vice president of research and insights at Shelton Group, during last week's GreenBiz webcast about what fringe consumers can tell us about the post-pandemic marketplace.

"But if you understand it now, you can turn that threat into an opportunity, And that’s really the power of the fringe," Enkema continued, before sharing findings from Shelton Group’s most recent report, "Seeing into the Future: Leveraging fringe consumer insights to build a sustainable brand in a post-COVID world."

Between March and mid-April, Shelton Group observed trends on social media — including Twitter, Reddit and Instagram — to gather insights about what might happen after the COVID-19 pandemic. It first shared the findings during the webcast.

The important piece of that is this is where you as a business and as a company and as a brand can take a look and understand something, that if it comes at you as a surprise, it’s a threat.

In the report, Shelton Group defines the fringe as a "subset of individuals who live on the fringes of society in terms of their beliefs and behaviors," also noting that they tend to be activist-oriented. Additionally, the firm polls mainstream consumers to further gather data about trends.

"We have over the last few years seen a shift towards sustainability that we haven’t haven’t seen before, and it’s kind of two-fold," said Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO at Shelton Group, during the webcast.

"There’s a social proof or social pressure kind of aspect to this, in which pre-COVID, 42 percent of us wanted to be seen as buying green products," Shelton continued. "But beyond that, we’ve also seen pre-COVID that 86 percent of us expect companies to stand for something more than just making money."

As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and recession, fringe consumers can give businesses a sense of what their expectations might be when this is all over and we go back to a "new normal." Here are a few key takeaways.

Shelton said businesses have two options — return to "business as usual" or "embrace the responsibility consumers have given them to tackle large scale issues like climate change," noting that business leaders should choose the second option for a number of reasons.

Further, Shelton said, businesses need to get involved in the right way and start rethinking sustainability so that they’re not doing the bare minimum. Consumers need to know that businesses have some "skin in the game."

"In this new COVID world, what we’re seeing in the fringe that is quickly becoming mainstream is that those ideas are amplified," she said. "What we’re seeing clearly in all this listening that we’re doing right now, again fringe and mainstream, is that businesses are sort of acting in one of four ways and therefore, they are getting categorized in one of four ways by consumers."

Screenshot from Shelton Group report

Shelton noted that there is a hierarchy in the four ways consumers are categorizing businesses. The businesses that are donating small aid that takes advantage of pandemic-induced losses are ranked low while those going beyond minimizing losses — such as those that shifted their manufacturing to produce masks or hand sanitizer — are ranked the highest.

Consumers are paying attention to these actions, and as citizens, they’re paying attention to "the system" — the government, economic system, etc. — which the fringe has said needs to be changed for years. That idea is becoming more mainstream, as the pandemic has exposed the flaws of the current models and to point to a specific system, capitalism.

During the webcast, Shelton said right now is the time for companies to step up their sustainability efforts.

"As you think about your 2030 goals and 2040 goals, I think you need to go way beyond or else you’re going to live in this bucket forever and be seen as, ‘Yeah, they’re doing alright but they could be doing more,’" she said.

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