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Dancing to the consumers’ tune

Previously, we’ve looked at the social consumerism scale of virtue versus value, and how consumers are choosing to be actively inconvenienced in return for feeling good about their actions – saving the environment one less plastic bag at a time. Organisations are creating a marketing campaign out of making life a little harder for their customers, salving the social conscience in return for having to juggle groceries that were once neatly contained in single-use plastic packaging.

But what of the reverse equation? Where, instead of building their reputation by making it harder for clients to do the wrong thing, organisations are winning approval by allowing their activities to be dictated to them by consumers determined to do the ‘right’ thing.

Witness the rise of veganism. Ipso Mori research for the Vegan Society shows that the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, rising from 150,000 to 600,000. According to Mintel, the UK market for meat-free foods was estimated to be worth £740m in 2018, up from the £539m 2015 figure, with retail sales expected to hit £658m by 2021. People citing animal welfare, health concerns, and the environment as reasons for cutting down on, or cutting out, meat have resulted in orders of vegan meals growing by 388% between 2016 and 2018.

While it is undeniable that veganism is the fastest growing food trend in the UK (Veganuary anyone?), vegans still only account for 1.16% of the population. And yet, this tiny proportion of the nation has managed to make high-end food retailers restaurants, meat-pie pubs and steak-loving celebrity chefs dance to their tune.

Any food-based organisation worth its pink Himalayan salt is now offering a vegan option, responding to the arguably disproportionate amount of coverage that the lifestyle choice has received in the – particularly social – media. A small section of society has managed to subvert the old model in which consumers are told what they need, and are now calling the shots thanks to the perceived tide of virtue on which they are riding.

Whether veganism is indeed better for human health and the environment (it’s undeniably better animal wellbeing) is still up for debate. Recent reports suggest that not all plant-based products are created equal when it comes to environmental impact and the British Nutrition Foundation suggests that a poorly-researched vegan diet can result in nutritional deficiencies; meaning the conscientious vegan needs to do more than just cut out animal products. Value is not the point, however; rather the perception of virtue is key, and the positive affect on the reputation of those organisations going with the prevailing tide.

A similar shift can be seen in newspaper reporting, as online subscriptions overtake print sales, and consumption informs the next round of news – even the articles that end up in print. In 2014, the Financial Times shifted to an online reporting schedule, posting stories at peak viewing times, and producing just a single, pre-planned print version covering the headline issues of the day.

By tracking and reacting to what gets read online, shared on social media and directly commented on by readers, news organisations are regurgitating the news agenda rather than setting it. What the audience counts as ‘virtuous’, or at least newsworthy, will be top of the list of what gets published.

But just as healthy eating trends come and go, so eventually the natural balance will assert itself. The majority audience may well tire of a media which chases its tail, eschew ad-filled click-bait, and pay for higher value news items – breaking out of the echo chamber in which all they hear is their own tune.

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