Where to find the holy grail of customer engagement

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Where to find the holy grail of customer engagement

U.K. sushi restaurant chain Moshi Moshi created an edible QR code that takes the customer to a website with information on the fish’s provenance.

The potential for consumers to affect sustainability outcomes is on the rise. Thanks to the ever-increasing amount of information on the affects of products in a supply chain, the power of the consumer seems to be growing.

However, whether they actually use that information to make better decisions with their wallets is the million-dollar question that continues to vex the sustainability community.  

As the debate trundles on over whether consumers really do care, innovative initiatives, platforms and tools are emerging that transform consumer behavior to more effectively embrace a sustainable future.

Consumer engagement was one of SustainAbility’s 10 trends for 2015 and is increasingly being tackled by a wide range of brands and stakeholders.

Bottom-up approach

On one hand, there are tools that are emerging in a bottom-up fashion, such as the new OpenLabel app. OpenLabel provides open-sourced information on products by enabling the public to post their own “labels” based on scanning a UPS barcode. This can include information on product health, environmental, food safety and other attributes.

The app harnesses barcode and mobile technology to track products to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to both learn and share information. The challenge with this phenomenon of non-experts writing content is the potential for distribution of inaccurate data.

One way that OpenLabel addresses this drawback is by featuring information from nonprofits and government bodies, such as the Leaping Bunny Program that certifies the product has not been tested on animals and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

OpenLabel is the latest app to put company and product information into consumer hands. Others include GoodGuide, Buycott and Ethical Barcode.

Top-down approach

On the other hand, top-down engagement from brands is increasing. A key example is Walmart’s recently launched Sustainability Leaders initiative in which suppliers that score highest in sustainability criteria, based on work with the Sustainability Consortium, achieve “Sustainability Leader” badges that appear on their products on Walmart’s website, signaling to consumers which products meet certain environmental and social standards.

This is significant, not just because of Walmart’s massive market power, but also because the company is trying to influence consumer choices regarding its suppliers by giving them the information needed to select sustainable products.

Ideally, this creates a competitive dynamic that results in the sale of more sustainable products. Time will tell whether this is successful but it is a notable development nonetheless.

The future of customer engagement

The future of innovation is likely to be somewhere in the middle of these two approaches. Companies can be the arbiters of the most accurate product information (ingredients list and sources, manufacturing processes). They also should help make that information more transparent in a way that encourages and empowers consumers to make better choices.

However, consumer-led apps that bypass brands are a new reality as these sources have higher credibility in consumers’ eyes and are democratizing the information flow. The most exciting opportunities for engagement will harness the strengths of both approaches.

For example, in 2013 the U.K. sushi restaurant chain Moshi Moshi teamed up with the Marine Stewardship Council to create an edible QR code that takes the customer to a website with information on the fish’s provenance.

It is not only a moral imperative for companies to take a leadership role to engage their consumers in such a way; it is also a business one. Smart brands recognize that they would miss the boat if they didn’t have a proactive consumer engagement strategy, especially as the conversations are already happening.

Companies can’t control them but they can help inform and guide consumers in a way that benefits the company, consumer, society and the planet. Because consumers tend to trust their family and friends more than a corporate PR message, it would behoove companies to embrace and encourage peer-to-peer communication about their products.

Partnering with NGOs and governmental bodies that are influencing consumers is another tactic, as shown by the Moshi Moshi example.

It’s not a matter of whether companies should engage but how: Which strategy makes the most sense for the company culture, the products and the target audience?

Given the innovative technologies available, there is no shortage of options; therefore, companies should be taking advantage of the suite of tools beyond their own communication channels — the more creative the better. With a little guidance, consumers really do have the power to change the world.