KANSAS CITY, MO. — Consumers are becoming increasingly educated and opinionated on a range of social and environmental issues, and they’re looking to CPG brands to deliver solutions.

In a survey this past spring, New York-based Ipsos Marketing asked consumers what sustainability issues they think the United Nations should focus on.

“Consumers said they should focus on the issue of zero hunger,” said Ashley Ericksen, vice president of Ipsos, during a July 21 presentation at The Institute of Food Technologists’ FIRST virtual conference. “They want to see change happen.”

Despite this heightened awareness, consumer behavior hasn’t changed much when it comes to sustainability over the past five to seven years, according to Ipsos.

“Consumers in the United States put more responsibility on businesses and government than they do on themselves,” Ericksen said. “People are thinking about the issue, but they may not know how to solve it. They want someone else to help them solve it if they can.”

That’s where value-based marketing and fostering a two-way conversation with consumers comes into play, added Vijay Viswanathan, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. Brands looking to productively engage with the issues consumers care about no longer enjoy the one-way, push influence they once had. Instead, the dynamics of brand influence have shifted to become more contextual and collective.

“The big change is user-generated content and how customers are really getting their information from other customers to make their decisions about brands,” Viswanathan said. “This is a challenge because it’s taken away information arbitrage. Twenty years ago, brands were privy to certain information and consumers just had to trust what brands said. In today’s world, you have to figure out as a brand how you want to collaborate with customers and influence them as opposed to just shouting at them.”

This dynamic rings true for younger consumers in particular. Research has shown Gen Z and young millennials are using social media as a tool to validate their decisions, opening up new opportunities for brands to create longer lasting and deeper relationships with their audiences.

To win in this new environment, brands must move beyond surface level engagement with social and environmental issues and bake those values into every aspect of their organization. This new reality will impact everyone in the product development process, from food scientists to pack engineers.

“There’s going to be a public element now to what you’re doing,” Ericksen said. “Some people might think that’s the role of marketing, but I think that’s where functions will have to work really closely together in sync.”

The best strategy is to start from the top, she said.

“I’m sure we’ve all experienced a situation where R&D is doing something completely separate from marketing, and when those two come together, there’s a disconnect,” Ericksen said. “A clear mission statement will impact all functions in the same way. It will impact everything you’re doing — the conversations you’re having with suppliers, how you think about distributing the product, how you’re setting up research… That needs to be thought of and considered at all levels of the organization. Then it will trickle down into the innovation and product development strategy.”