How to catch up with your customers 

Many brands aren’t adapting quickly enough to what consumers want, believes Jim Bulmer, former Head of Market & Customer Insight at Royal Mail, and Non-Executive Director at Mindlab. Committed to enabling insight leaders to get ahead by arming them with a profound understanding of customers, Jim reveals the current trends causing decision paralysis, offers strategic guidance, and spotlights brands setting the pace.

Trend 1. Sustainability: The switch has flipped 

Issue The consumer drive towards sustainability has taken businesses by surprise, with the shift finally happening despite the cost of living crisis. 76% of shoppers now consciously seek more sustainable products, and 64% are reducing their consumption of single-use plastic.

Action To align successfully with customer values, brands need to know what sustainability means to people across diverse markets, demographics, and geographic locations. How important is it that packaging is biodegradable, or that the brand supports biodiversity? For more than a third of people, this influences their buying decisions. Within food and drink for instance, businesses are going back to the drawing board about everything from ingredients to labelling, design, packaging and transportation. With more environmental and financial regulation emerging, and the UN science-based targets focusing on the entire supply chain, I’m starting to hear drinks companies talking about their impact on agriculture, local communities and biodiversity.

Trend 2. Online: New design dimensions

Issue The way people shop has fundamentally changed, with the pandemic expediting a long-term shift towards online purchasing away from bricks and mortar. Back in 2013, less than 10% of products in the UK were sold online. In 2023, it’s grown significantly to 26%. This poses a significant challenge, particularly for products initially designed for display on retail shelves. The consumer journey is wildly different to even a few years ago. 

In addition, we’ve become a global marketplace. You can practically buy anything from anywhere, opening up growth potential as well as risk for businesses, whether they’ve got a brilliant market share or are looking to grow into new markets. 

Action How do you make your product standout and grab attention online on a third-party website–while also demonstrating more nuanced messaging around sustainability? It’s a tricky balancing act and you need to know your customers and potential customers across the world to be able to make the right choices.

Trend 3. Cost: Challenges causing conflict

Issue Costs are soaring making it difficult to find the budget to make fundamental changes, at the same time that consumers are tightening their belts. Brands are trying to work out how to protect sales in this tough environment. 

Action Brands need to know what their current and future customers care about to make effective decisions. Take the alcohol industry where brands are faced with opposing forces such as their pricing strategy, responsible consumption, eco-friendly packaging and retaining a premium feel. Again, the answer lies in nuanced consumer understanding. 

Trend 4. Data: Unlocking past and future potential 

Issue We have access to data like we’ve never had before and as research and insight professionals, we need to make better use of it. Quick tactical research has a place, but strategic market progressions require detailed scientific insight unlocking true consumer behaviour. How do people in different demographics, geographies and economic classifications feel and how can that knowledge be applied to achieving commercial goals?

Action As an ex-insight leader and having met with many in my career, I know we like to be at the forefront of our industries and our markets using the best emerging techniques. We all need to be pushing providers to unlock new stories about customers and potential consumers. One emerging idea is how brands could match existing and historical data with new technologies like AI to model the future. 

  There’s no denying that this is a challenging time for brands. There are a lot of unknowns out there. But it’s also exciting to try to understand consumers in this dynamic environment, particularly for the marketers, researchers and insight leaders of the world who thrive at the opportunity to learn about customers, test and market new ideas: it’s at the heart of why we all do what we do. 


Brands leading the way in sustainability and packaging

M&S The long-running Plan A programme ensures a strong focus on sustainability in packaging and products. The brand continues to innovate for instance through its recent Farming With Nature programme which is about both producing good food and supporting farmers to become more resilient to environmental challenges–a responsible initiative leading smaller businesses along the sustainability journey.

ABInBev Through its 100+ Accelerator programme, this huge global consumer goods business is investing, with partners, in supporting innovative businesses with climate change focused solutions. What’s particularly impressive is the collaborative partnership between ABInBev, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Colgate Palmolive to tackle the big issues facing consumer goods companies, not least reducing use of plastic and reducing packaging waste, supporting biodiversity and taking clear climate action.

Diageo The leading drinks brand has a clear sustainable packaging strategy in place, with a strong focus on reducing waste, sustainable sourcing, increasing recycled content and improving recyclability, carefully balanced with a deep understanding of its consumers.

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