Businesses have always had to be in tune with what their customers want but, as with so many areas of life, the pace of change is increasing rapidly, says James Tucker, Business Advisory Partner.
Whilst our response to this change may once have been limited to ensuring the latest products were stocked or the menu changed regularly, things are now far more complex in that consumers want to buy from businesses that reflect their values on a huge range of issues.
The speed of change and the increased breadth of issues that businesses now need to be concerned with outside of their normal sphere presents a real challenge for the people that run them, and perhaps more so for larger concerns who may be less agile than their SME competitors.
A recent headline in newspapers reported that Unilever (the third largest consumer goods company in the world) has just committed to halve its use of new plastic over the next five years – a bold and commendable move, but one also undoubtedly designed to appeal to ‘Gen Z’. This interests me for a number of reasons. Firstly whilst we have all been recycling and trying to minimise the wasteful use of plastic for years, it has only really come to the forefront of public consciousness since David Attenborough’s stunning BBC documentary series Blue Planet II aired in 2017.
In the course of just over two years, one television series made in the UK has totally changed the view of many thousands, if not millions of people, both in the UK, and through the seamlessness of modern broadcasting and social media, across the world.
In that period the younger generation (Gen Z) in particular has embraced the enormity of the challenge that faces the world. Nobody can have missed the rise in fame of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, transforming her from an ordinary Swedish schoolgirl to a world famous thought leader and mentor for her peers.
In years gone by, business leaders may well have patronisingly dismissed the actions of Greta and her army of followers as the well-meaning but naïve actions of young people who had yet to understand how the real world worked – but not anymore. Less than three years after this issue really hit the public consciousness, one of the world’s largest companies is directing all of its corporate might towards a project that has nothing to do with its products but rather highlighting the packaging they are encased within …. and not being shy about the fact that this is specifically targeted at those less than 24 years of age.
A similar fast-moving attitudinal change can be seen in the car industry, where diesel has become a dirty word (despite, and in contrast to the climate change issue, a lack of evidence to support it) and a huge rush towards electric vehicles.
Why do these attitudes matter to businesses? Simple. Companies do not just need to reflect the values of their customers, they must work to attract new talent, and the younger end of the employment market is also changing. Those in their 20s and 30s are no longer driven purely by salary and furthermore they no longer accept their lot of getting their head down and paying off their mortgage (perhaps because they cannot get one). Instead they want more holidays, flexible working arrangements and a range of benefits to pick and choose from. Employers beware. Dismiss these issues as the whims of the snowflake generation at your peril.
Businesses have always had to move with the times, but it is abundantly clear that those times are now moving infinitely faster than they ever have done before. It is no longer enough to just consider what you do. How you do things, and are seen to do things, is vitally important. In our own case Scrutton Bland could not have made it to our 100-year birthday this year without changing and adapting our services as the needs of the businesses and individuals we advise in our region have moved on. The key point now in 2019 is that it’s not enough to be successful: we have to demonstrate to our community that we are running our business in an efficient, and yet sustainable way.
If digital and social media can change our world view on things such as climate change and pollution in such a short period of time, we can all be very sure that these forms of communication can equally impact our own businesses and the views our customers and prospective employees have about us.
With that shift in attitude comes an opportunity for the SME space, and we do not need a committee and a focus group to effect change – we can just get on and do it!