by Louise Burgers (@retailingafrica) When artist Madonna, at peak fame and disruption in the 1980s, sang about being a “Material Girl”, she was merely reflecting the conspicuous consumption that characterised that decade, notorious as the ‘decade of decadence’:

“‘Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl.”

This was the heady age, when brands told consumers what they wanted and how they wanted it. This ‘decade of greed’ and ‘age of indulgence’ was driven by the boom in the advertising industry worldwide, the global dominance of multinational brands and the rise of the mega-mall, promising to give consumers everything they didn’t know they needed under one roof.

It was a time of iconic campaigns that fuelled consumer aspirations — think of the Marlboro Man with his macho, adventurous lifestyle; or the iconic Mainstay brand entreaty to change to their brand or “stay as you are for the rest of your life”.

Advertising then was all about getting customers to change who they were, to convince them that they would be more desirable if they wore, drank, smoked, owned, drove a particular brand. How ironic then, that 30 years later, consumers are now telling brands to change their ways and embrace better values in order to become more desirable to an empowered, conscientised consumer, who is increasingly only supporting brands and business that embraces corporate social responsibility and does not harm our planet.

Poster child

The poster child for this new generation — your future consumer — is young Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, aged 16. Speaking to the global business elite in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2019, she said: “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”

This is Generation Z, and they are the ones that know they have to fix our planet and repair the eco, social and economic problems caused by the last 30–50 years of consumer over-indulgence. They will be actively seeking out brands and environments that support and contribute to finding solutions to solve these challenges.

They are brand-savvy, understand how they are being marketed to, how their data is being harvested and, most importantly, they are connected in a way no other generation has ever been — having grown up immersed in the digital world and with digital lives that far surpass anything most Generation Xers or the Baby Boomers running things, have ever experienced. Armed with these skills, they are empowered to behave in a way as to create the change they want to see in the world — from boycotting brands; calling out corporates that do wrong in their eyes; and amplifying every grievance or cause they have globally.

Purpose first, profit second

For the past few years, I have worked more on economic content from Africa, and the one big difference between innovation and new product and service development on the continent to the rest of the world is that often innovation occurs when individuals need to solve a problem within their communities: purpose comes first, profit second.

Over the past year I’ve been working with non-profits in Africa and, locally in South Africa, with one organisation which is working with young women entrepreneurs on the continent and another which is providing leadership skills to youth at grassroots level in the poorest areas in our country. It struck me that many of these young people I have interviewed and interacted with individually or through the research I’ve written up all want to make a difference in their communities, their country and the world. They have little concept of wealth as many of them have always been poor. Being ‘rich’ does not drive them; making a difference does.

Consumer expectations and purpose-driven marketing have to be at the heart of every major decision by brands and in the retail market today.

Key consumer trends

These are the key consumer trends to take cognisance of right now:

  • Balance and equilibrium are what consumers crave in a world seemingly gone mad. Forbes reports on research from Canvas8 that “people are seeking equilibrium in all aspects of their lives — between humans and technology, brand and personal, global and local”. They want experiences from brands and retailers that help them deal with their reality and make things better, not just escape from it.
  • Consumers want to align with brands that understand their ‘individual uniqueness’ and are inclusive of all gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity — rejecting brands that conform to stereotyping.
  • Responsible consumerism has gone mainstream and particularly younger consumers are actively seeking out brands that “help them make better, more responsible choices”, reports Forbes. This includes authenticity where brands or services help them make sense of fake news surrounding ethical product sourcing and ingredients. Put simply: consumers want brands that tell the truth and have ethics.
  • Social activism is nothing new among the youth, but this generation of Millennials and the younger Generation Z want to associate with brands that take an active stand on societal, environmental and moral issues. calls these “Legislative Brands”, where corporate interests use their global power to call for regulatory change to make the world a better place.
  • Mindful consumerism feeds into all these trends, as a return to local sourcing and manufacturing will be seen world-over, according to Global Influences’ business trends for 2020. This trend supports the narrative that, in a world where artificial intelligence and robotics will increase, humans will return to craftmanship, authenticity in products and their cultural roots.

What brands should do

And this is how marketers and retailers need to respond in 2020:

  • In order for brands and retailers to take the lead in the responsible consumerism being demanded by consumers, Forbes quotes Exploration Architecture director, Michael Pawlyn, as saying, “There’s an urgent need to shift from sustainable to a regenerative mindset, going beyond simply mitigating negatives to finding wholly positive ways of existing. Regenerative means having a net positive impact in a myriad different ways, like restoring ecosystems and making people live healthier, longer lives.” It’s all part of the circular economy.
  • The way we need to view food is also changing as healthy eating becomes important as ‘preventative medicine’, too. Consumers want to know what they are eating, what is in their food and where it comes from. And they don’t want it packaged in packaging that will harm the environment. This is a future that is more than giving up our plastic bags at the tills. We are reverting back to markets of old, it seems, where seasonal- and locally sourced produce was sold to consumers who knew exactly where it came from and brought along their own packaging. Already in South Africa, no-packaging stores and sans-packaging fresh0produce sections are being reintroduced.
  • Technology is also enabling the healthier indoors trend, where consumers take comfort in their home environments which are becoming increasingly comfortable with the help of technology, too, knowing that they can have anything they desire delivered to their doorstep at the touch of a button. Our ‘everything at the touch of a button’ society is having a major impact on ecommerce, with same-day service becoming essential.
  • Phygital retail — the convergence of digital and physical shopping — is complete, with retailing becoming more and more an exciting experience that consumers want to be part of. The theatre of shopping will play a bigger role in the future, combined with technology to create immersive shopping experiences that can be shared to create social capital. But make it real — that deep, emotional connection still needs to be present. This is also where augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will be used to delight consumers, whether in store or online in AR for the web applications.

This final quote from Thunberg sums up what Generation Z and Generation Alpha, who will follow, want from their leaders, both political and in business: “It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking. I ask you to please wake up and make changes required possible.”

All organisations, especially brands, need to evaluate their impact on the environment, on society and culture in general, and how they interact with the communities they operate in, source raw materials from and how they serve their target consumers. Because they will come for you next if it is not in an ethical, transparent way that creates positive change and reduces consumer impact on the environment.

See also


Brands & Branding 2019 now available!
Brands & Branding 2019 now available!

Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the publisher and editor of (@retailingafrica), launched in partnership with MarkLives. Louise is a content strategist, editor, journalist and trend curator. She has worked in the FMCG retailing, media, marketing and advertising communications industry in South Africa and Africa, for 25 years as editor of iconic B2B publications such as AdVantage, Marketing Mix,, Bizcommunity.Africa, Biz Trends and Progressive Retailing. She has an MA in strategy and is a passionate Afro-optimist.

The article first appeared in the 2019 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing. Find case-studies, profiles and brand news at Order your copy of the 25th annual edition now!

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