"Survival of the fittest" is often attributed to Darwin. More accurately, however, Darwin was describing "survival of the flexible" when talking about species most rewarded with longevity.

In the midst of an economic crisis stacked on top of an environmental crisis, it is such agility that is quickly defining the business and community leaders of tomorrow.

Consumer Expectations

Understanding current financial limitations while remaining focused on the critical triple bottom line—people, planet, and profit—is the fundamental challenge for today's organizations.

The current confluence of an environmental and economic crisis is the greatest opportunity of our times for culture change.

Companies and organizations that both understand and react to the latest in consumer expectations are well positioned to offer beneficial goods and services to customers as well as financial stability to their stakeholders.

New consumer expectations include the following.

Transparency over spectacle

Thanks to how quickly information can be accessed, modern consumers are willing and able to research the companies and organizations they support.

Just as Consumer Reports provides insight into product performance, blogs and nongovernmental organizations eagerly provide more information regarding a company's social and environmental performance. In an era where everyone has a voice, most Google search results are user-generated content rather than corporate-sponsored communication. That is your advantage.

According to the Reputation Institute's RepTrak tool, which measures corporate reputations worldwide, a 10% increase in corporate reputation translates into a 1.3% increase in bottom-line corporate value.

Reputation is a trust issue, and trust is achieved through transparency. Strive for transparency over spectacle. Report on it in your marketing and through standardized transparency reports (e.g., those based on the Global Reporting Initiative's framework).

Dialogue over monologue

Social-networking sites have created a marketplace for conversation. Consumers are using online conversation, status notifications, and group affiliations (neo-tribes) in their social lives. Social networking is transcending the social and becoming a business requirement as well.

"What is Company XYZ doing right now?" Shell has launched Shell Dialogues to "explore the energy debate." At the site, stakeholders can engage with Shell experts on a variety of topics. That can be viewed as a hijack of the strategy in question, but they are hijacking it for a reason.

Old-school marketing of broadcasting a single, unreturned message is a failed strategy. Today's consumer wants to engage with the brands they support. They want to shape them in their own image, not the other way around.

Whenever possible, ask your customers questions. Then, of course, listen, engage, and react, and, finally, thank them.

"Fans" not customers

In the green space, there is still quite a bit of "badge wearing." Modern consumers are looking for unique opportunities to walk their own talk. When they find a brand that supports their mission and furthers their own brand of environmentalism or social justice, they talk about that brand, service, or idea within their social networks.

Old research demonstrated that the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, or LOHAS, consumer disliked being "marketed to." That is likely true of all consumer segments.

However, beneficial goods and services that reinforce personal brands have an amazing opportunity to create a fan base out of their customers. Method and Dansko are great examples of companies that have achieved that fan base.

Treat your customers like fans rather than like customers. Create moments and stories they can share with their friends.

Cultural value and immediate gratification

Your new fan base is hungry to support corporations that support their own cultural values. But they also want the perception of a fair price. They want transparency and value, and they want it now.

"Green" as a product attribute can be a powerful motivator, but it is rarely the only motivator. It is a new feature—in some cases, it's that new-car smell. Don't be confused into thinking that your product or service can live on green attributes alone. Make sure your fans know both the cultural and economic value of your product or service.

Play on the same field as your nongreen competitors and then spike the ball with extraordinary cultural value.

New Opportunities

As disposable income decreases, consumers will naturally be more fiscally conservative. But the smart ones with a little more expendable income will choose culturally aligned brands as their banks. They will choose wisely where they can get the most economic and cultural bang for their buck. They will deposit their money into companies they trust and with which they share values.

Build a brand to reinforce that. There are two strategies for building brands:

  1. Earn them.
  2. Buy them.

Both strategies work. One takes time. One takes money. Immediate return is what got us into this mess. So let's choose enduring value over immediate return.

Cut your media buy, but engage your fan base in new ways:

  • Invest in social media.
  • Invest in public relations and blogger relationships.
  • Create public events that do more than just promote your business.
  • Promote those public events.
  • Build a heroic brand.
  • Develop deep economic and social relationships with mission-aligned nonprofits.

And then, if there's money left over, buy an ad.

Smart marketing dollars spent during a down economy are far more powerful than money spent during boom years. Consider that each dollar represents a greater percentage of the overall marketing expenditure in your given industry.

We are at a unique place and time. The crossroads of environmental and economic crises provide agile companies with the ability to capture market share in a down market.

Beneficial corporations and startups have the advantage in this market. They are the future value chain for products and services. They offer more than product, more than status. They offer solutions to the crises of our time. People need that.

Companies with environmental and socially beneficial goods and services will manage through the current economic climate and build value for the sectors that they helped create. Modern consumers are looking for solutions, and perhaps even heroic companies, to support.

Given 75% of a respectable media budget, innovative marketing and stakeholder engagement can return far more value in the long run.

In the short run, however, advertising is just the price you will pay for not being creative.

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John Rooks is is president and founder of The SOAP Group (www.thesoapgroup.com). SOAP (Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners) is a consultant for Fortune 500 companies on issues of environmental and sustainability messaging. John can be reached at jrooks@thesoapgroup.com and at 207.772.0066, ext. 105.